The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to present the 2018 Next Generation Delegates blog series. This year’s Delegation was comprised of 27 outstanding students from universities across the United States and around the world studying agriculture, food, and related disciplines. We were thrilled to feature these emerging leaders at the Global Food Security Symposium 2018, and look forward to sharing the exciting work of this extraordinary group.
It is easy to assign a single-dimensional identity to the multi-dimensional complexity in agriculture. Over time, agricultural systems have been in a state of continuous overhaul. Aggregate measures of any system are reductionist and blind to the holarchy of these systems. Moreover these measures are used to make decisions and strategies based on the ceteris paribus hypothesis (i.e. keeping everything else the same); in reality ceteris is true but the paribus is a myth. Systems work in synergy and any metric that measures isolated effects, is violating the basic laws of thermodynamics.
This becomes especially relevant in institutions that are a part of the food systems, since the interdependency is so tangible. Agri Investors often care about ROI, and end up only looking at seed price, pest resilience, and subsidies. An environmentalist might look at metrics of diversity, and revolt against the enforced monoculture by the investors. An agricultural extension service that specialises in sustainable practices/methods, might only care about metrics of outreach, number of uptakes of the practice and not about labour treatment or farmers’ incomes. This is a ripe time to recognise and emphasize on the methods of designers, innovators and system thinkers to enrich the discourse and make less polarised, holistic decisions, policies and strategies.
The confounding array of decision making apparatuses have a watershed moment is seafood sourcing systems, where apart from the complexity of interdependency, tragedy of commons plays a role. And it is not just the multiple fishermen in their long liners, gillnetters, crabbers who have to share the sea; not just the shrimps, halibuts, Chilean seabasses but also the fishing industry, the paper mills, the pesticide manufacturers. Apart from this situation, there is the added complexity of catches and by-catches, ill-defined national boundaries, fish migration and unrelated industries using the ocean as a dump, which cannot be regulated under fishing laws. The same thought was echoed by Mitchell Davis from the James Beard Foundation during the panel on Food for Social Good. The Harvard Office of Sustainability has commissioned a grant for students to work on the Dining Services’ seafood sourcing decisions, and the impact of large scale buyers on the system. While working on the project with the Campus Sustainability grant, my team found that it wasn’t just as simple as the organic/not organic label, it was about confusing standards, the same species having a yellow “Good Alternative” rating by Seafood Watch and a red “Not Recommended” by Oceanwise.
Languages evolve based on these metrics, the language shapes the implicit contracts and the axioms of day-to-day decisions of an institution, which ultimately define their politics. Often because organisations deliver different services, they end up in siloes defined by this metric-driven language. Moreover, the language of these systems is not the language of its practitioners. There is no balance of culture, nature and agriculture. Metrics like GDP are interchangeably used to proxy the well-being of a nation and prioritize policies, because of the use-what-can-be-measured mentality. Therefore, often important stakeholders, like farmers or consumers are excluded from policy conversations and decisions. Tracing the link between developmental strategies, which are well-intentioned, but get manifested as unsustainable, exploitative measures, a methodology was developed. Where does the intangible intention get lost? In the evaluation.
This is especially why the Chicago Council Next Generation Delegation was such an interesting experience. Watching leaders from different industries coming in with both their success and failure stories, as well as what decision-making parameters they used. Rikin Gandhi, CEO of DigitalGreen said that the first thing that farmers ask, looking his extension videos, are the names and villages of the person in the video, before even considering the economic value of the content. Sarah Hunter, from X, said that Valley companies would need to invest in relationships with practitioners on the ground, the farmers’ federation for any new technology to succeed. The theme of the conference was “Youth for Growth”, a timely call to address the dramatic shift in the demography of our world called the “youth bulge”—the phenomena of increasing number of young adults and adolescents entering the workforce, especially in the most populous geographies of South Asia and Africa. This bulging youth population also determines the future of work, the future of food and the future of world stability. An interesting perspective that came forth was the perception of a farmer’s life, the supposed glamor quotient and how the youth population, especially in Africa and India, were veering away from the profession. Perhaps it is time to use metrics of a marketing and branding organisation to measure agricultural productivity. And there is no dearth of ambassadors; I was lucky enough to meet and share the stage with a few of them as a part of the Next Gen Youth Delegation. The final panel, “Youth Perspectives, Potential and Progress: An Insiders’ Take” marked the culmination of the Symposium. Trent McKnight, Founder of AgriCorps was the chair and in conversation along with me were my fellow delegates, Daniel Abioye from the University of Ibadan, Pem Chiang from Peking University, and Emely Lopez Barrera from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Trent’s energy was infectious and it was exhilarating to be in a conversation with brilliant people who had uniquely identified opportunities in their parts of the world, and believed in themselves enough to pursue them. As a design researcher and strategist, to see a number of siloes being short circuited into this current of ideas was priceless.