Josh Tickell, a well-known documentary filmmaker, recently published an extraordinary book, “Kiss the Ground.” This fast-reading book, which feels like a documentary film (I believe he is working on one), makes the case that industrialized farming is rapidly destroying the earth’s soil and turning our farm land into virtual deserts.
This has two ominous implications for people and the planet:
One, the earth’s soil, which took thousands of years to evolve into this rich and complex ecosystem of life, and which is the source of all of our food either directly from plants or indirectly from animals, is in the process of being wiped out in less than a century. When this soil is gone, how will this impact the quality of our food source to sustain life as we know it?
Two, desert soil not only loses its capacity to grow anything without chemical additives but also loses its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. As it turns out, healthy soil can be a major player in reducing greenhouse gasses. Without soil to capture carbon dioxide, will we run out of time to slow down or stop global warming?
This is scary stuff, but Josh, the ultimate optimist, has a solution, which you can read about in the book.
My concern is how did we get into this mess? And can the same forces that got us into this mess, get us out of it?
In our quest to find ways of feeding the world’s growing population, we discovered that by applying the technology of industrialization and chemistry to farming, we could dramatically increase crop production. Through the power of capitalism, resources were mobilized and we ended up creating a whole new way for farming, now known as industrialized farming. It was an amazing achievement. In its early stages, improved crop production was seen as a great benefit to a growing population; but given what we know today, is it worth the cost to our health and our planet?
Let’s change gears for a moment.
Purposeful Leadership as practiced at the Foundation for Purposeful Organizations is based on two core ideas:
First, purpose is the only reason for an organization to exist and is characterized by a specific problem in the world it wants to solve; in this case, feeding the world.
Second, an organization’s survival and success are a function of its relationship to the world of individuals or groups that it impacts or is influenced by in pursuit of that purpose. In pursuing feeding the world, who is being impacted and how will that affect our success? Here is where industrialized farming got into trouble.
With a commitment to its purpose, the organization must then determine how best to fulfill that mission. We call that “how” its business model. The organization’s business model addresses what the organization actually does, who it sells to, who will provide needed resources, how it will generate funds to pay for all of its costs, and so forth. If we consider farming as a whole, we can see that many different business models will be needed to feed the world. To name just a few, we have the farming model (actually growing the crops), we have an equipment manufacturing model (providing the automated machinery for planting and harvesting) and we have the chemical production model (providing the fertilizers, insecticides and seeds). Each organization operating under its own different model is committed to feeding the world in its very own way.
These different business models evolved over time as market conditions changed and new problems arose in pursuit of feeding the world. New solutions always seem to create new problems; that happened in spades in farming.
What we have discovered over the past decade or so, that Josh points out so graphically in his book, is that industrialized farming is destroying our soils in three ways by:
- Tilling the soil (exposing the undersoil to the air)
- Promoting mono-crop production (growing a single plant crop at a time)
- Requiring fertilizer and insecticides (preparing the soil for plant growth)
If you want to find out why this is so, please read his book (“Kiss the Ground,” November 2017, Simon & Schuster). When I say “we” in this context, I mean our government agencies responsible for agriculture in this country, the scientific community (excluding industry-supported studies) and most other nations in the world.
If this trend is so clear, why aren’t farms, equipment manufacturers and chemical companies realizing we are on a dangerous path with grave consequences?
I believe it is because these organizations have forgotten why they are in business in the first place. Purposeful Leadership demands that your business model supports your purpose, not the other way around. If you see your organization as a chemical business and not as your commitment to feeding the world, you have put your business model (chemical production) first above all else. And to what end? Profits? Survival? Businesses that lose their way and forget why they exist in the first place will ultimately fail since they will have lost the support of their stakeholder world.
A Purposeful organization would clearly see that the current form of industrialized farming is harming its stakeholders and would seek new approaches to fulfilling its commitment to feeding the world even if it means changing its business model. But that is not happening today. Instead, corporations with legacy models are fighting back, especially in the chemical industry, by using their power and influence on government to change the laws in favor of the status quo and to create their own body of “scientific” research data to support their current positions. We saw these same tactics used in the tobacco industry. These efforts will only buy some time; but as we saw in the tobacco industry, the truth will ultimately come out — hopefully, before it is too late.
Josh’s solution to the soil problem is multi-crop organic farming without tilling, which has been demonstrated to work and be cost effective. However, without Purposeful Leadership as the preferred style of management in the farming industry, organizations may not have the will to put Purpose before profit.