Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ideas without action aren't ideas--they're regrets.

In a previous comment 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 judgment, and even your instincts a little more.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What price cheap food? Obesity estimated to cost the USA about $344 billion in medical-related expenses by 2018,

Today I came across a contribution entitled Americans Eat the Cheapest Food in the World, But What is It Really Costing Us?

The contribution records outlines how the USA population spend much less of their money on the food than ever before, but they eat out far more than ever before, buying fatty processed and fast foods laden with saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars. When compared to other countries, USA food is by far the cheapest.

But it comes at a cost – environmental and in burgeoning healthcare costs resulting from obesity.  The article notes:

‘If Americans continue to pack on pounds, obesity will cost us about $344 billion in medical-related expenses by 2018, eating up about 21 percent of healthcare spending”

These are the issues we all need to consider when reflecting on what we want from farming – from our agricultural and food systems.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Paul Callaghan - Scientist and passionate New Zealander - rest in piece

New Zealand mourns Sir Paul Callaghan, one of New Zealand's premier scientists who has lost his battle with cancer.

Paul was a wonderfully enthusiastic scientist and citizen— and I will always remember his commitment to the practice of his scientific research in New Zealand, and the way he encouraged younger members of the scientific community to  do the same.  "NZ is a great place to do research".  Much will be said in the next few days to honour his contribution.

Very best wishes to Paul’s wife Miang,and  his family, on this sad day.

Rest in Peace Paul

Sir Paul Callahan at Victoria University at Wellington

Friday, March 23, 2012

Food Dialogues: what one group values in agriculture

My previous posting asks, amongst other things, the general question of "what do we want agriculture to do?

I have come across an interesting site Food Dialogues

Food Dialogues is the site of  USFRA.  The group, in it's own words is:

U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) is a newly formed alliance consisting of a wide range of prominent farmer- and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners. This marks the first time agricultural groups at the national, regional and state levels have collaborated to lead the dialogue and answer Americans’ questions about how we raise our food – while being stewards of the environment, responsibly caring for our animals and maintaining strong businesses and communities.

The site includes an interesting value statement that says:

We believe in farming and ranching that is sustainable.  To us this means helping people everywhere thrive, improving the health of the planet and growing strong businesses

They comment on aspirations about people, planet and business, and strategic objectives to: 
  • Increase the number of policymakers and government officials (at all levels) who value modern agriculture production.
  • Engage key customer decision makers in the dialogue about the value of modern food production.
  • Work with leading national influencer organizations (medical, cultural, dietary, environmental, etc.) to create partnerships in support of today's agriculture.
  • Increase the role of farmers and ranchers as the voice of animal and crop agriculture on local, state and national food issues.

 This site deserves a visit and USFRA is to be supported in trying to establish a dialogue and encouraging people to thinks about agriculture in a meaningful manner.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What price cheap food? Or “Do we want legless cows and featherless chooks?

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 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.

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?

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.

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?

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 challenging questions, 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.

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.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Christopher Wren's convictions, not his structural columns, support London

 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.

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

Think about it:  The visible signs of  leadership are expressed in its practice.

Ideas have power - if we are prepared to let go of them

Often I find myself reluctant to "let ideas go" for fear that they are ill-formed and may reflect badly on me, or even be shot down (often for legitimate reasons).  But Albrecht Durer, a German painter, printmaker, engraver, mathematician, and theorist from Nuremberg in the 1400-1500s reminds us of the value others can add if we let go.

"But I shall let the little I know or have learnt go forth into the day in order that someone better than I may guess the truth, and in his work may prove and rebuke my error. At this I shall rejoice that I was yet the means whereby this truth has come to light." 

How often do we let an idea languish when we have run out of energy and inspiration to develop it fully, or become paralysed by analysis?  How often do we miss a rich discussion drawing on other perspectives and experiences?  What's wrong with my idea coming back in a better, more effective form?

Connecting voice and touch: the work of a leader

Here is a little story from one of my favourite leadership practitioners, Max De Pree, that reminds us that what a leader does is important.  I often find the CEO job a rather lonely life where every move is under someone’s observation.  But rather than letting this develop into a sense of strain or tension, it is important to remember that if your actions reflect your word (or intentions) then you are being authentic and effective.

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. (my emphasis)

De Pree M O (1991)  Leadership Jazz.  Melbourne: Australian Business Library, Information Australia. pp.1-3

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 Leadershi...