The Conundrum of Agriculture Innovation

The Conundrum of Agriculture Innovation. Part I

Marc Ferguson

CEO at Hungry Planet Farms


Conundrumnoun, co·nun·drum \kə-ˈnən-drəm\. 

  1. An intricate and difficult problem. 
  2. A riddle whose answer is or involves a pun.
  3. The history of agriculture in a single statement.

Okay, I added the last definition above. But I could probably make a case why Webster’s dictionary should consider adding it.

Innovation in Agriculture Falls into Three Categories:

  • Transformational and a major contributor to human welfare
  • Exploitive of natural and public externalities (a negative)
  • Myopic with unintended consequences (worse)

Transformational Innovation. We probably all recognize the innovations that fall into the first category; the Roman aqueducts, the plow, plant genetics, organic (soil) chemistry and microbiology, crop rotation, mechanization, greenhouses, curing, refrigeration, and more recently, satellite weather and other information technologies. Each changed agriculture forever. And each solved a difficult and intricate problem with a creative solution with minimal exploitation of natural or publically-owned externalities.

I consider these ‘authentic, responsible, and thoughtful’ innovations. Cheers to these innovators!

Exploitive Innovation. In the second category are innovations that required the fortunate occurrence of advantageous externalities including cheap land, cheap oil, cheap labor, subsidized public irrigation infrastructure, a sudden (war related) surplus of synthetic nitrogen, etc. These externalities allowed for less clever (less innovative) solutions because the primary benefit was realized in concert with an externality that the innovator had nothing to do with. Most of these innovations wouldn’t have been possible without the shifting of costs from the farmer to the public. For example, monoculture row cropping would not have been economical had the farm innovator had to have also solved the problem of massive irrigation infrastructure, abundant and cheap fuel (usually subsidized) for machinery, cheap and often exploited labor, and the most stable climate in human history. There are a surprising number of innovations that fall into this category. If the externality was suddenly disappeared or more costly, many of these innovations would be useless.

I think of these innovations as opportunistic, hollow, and shortsighted (no matter how clever). Their opposite is sustainable agriculture. Jeers to these innovators!


Myopic Innovation. These are one dimensional solutions that include all pesticides (boy is that going to anger a lot of farmers), genetically modified crops that achieve nothing more than to allow for even greater use of pesticides (more angry readers), monoculturing techniques, (most farmers), biological transformation of corn to be used in everything from packaging to biofuels (uh oh, here come the pitchforks), excessive fertilization techniques that foul our water resources, public policy that ignores human rights violations of farm labor (just ruined any chances to be Donald Trump’s friend), and many more. In fact, I speculate that there are more myopic innovations than transformational and exploitive combined. They all seemed like a good idea at the time, but had unintended consequences (which is why I titled this post as the Conundrum of Agriculture Innovation). They are unfortunate at best, and sinister at worst (Monsanto suspected that Glyphosate was carcinogenic decades ago and did everything possible to hide it). The unintended consequences are responsible for reduced plant nutritional density, farm labor toxic poisoning, probable endocrine-related health issues for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, potential health issues of rogue RNA and human microbiome destruction from GMO crops, massive dead zones from agricultural runoff, processes that result in 1/3 of all greenhouse gas emissions – whew!

I don’t consider these innovations at all. I think they are fraudulent because they failed to consider (intentionally or unintentionally) the potential for negative impacts on external parts of the ecosystem on which they rely. Some result in exactly the opposite role of food – they contribute to the shortening of human life rather than the quality of human life. Sneers to these innovators!

Lessons Learned

Years ago, while on a flight between Denver and Ames Iowa, I was treated to the most profound two hours of education on the unintended consequences of the food, chemical and water industries. An elderly gentleman sitting next to me confided that he participated in years of public policy discussions in which a classic ‘deal with the devil’ was made with full knowledge of the likely consequences. The tradeoff of short term benefits (like feeding starving kids or just cheaper food) for longer term health risks; and the blind acceptance than any and all science was good science. He admitted that at first he thought of it as a noble cause, but then realized that once in place, the innovation was like letting the ‘genie out of the bottle’. There was no going back until it was too late. You could see the regret in his eyes and hear it in his voice. I have never forgotten that conversation and thought about how to avoid ever making the same mistake he had made.

Part II: Transformational Agriculture Innovation is a Process

In our next post, I’ll lay out a methodology that we use at Hungry Planet Technology meant to focus on Transformational Innovation, while guarding against the others.

Until then, Cheers!


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