Archive for the ‘agriculture’ Category

Attack of the tuta in Almeria, Spain

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

The story of the province of Almeria, Spain is a little bit like Steven Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. In the first act (Spoiler Alert!), everything goes right, Cinderella gets to go to the king’s festival and everybody lives happily ever after. In the second act, everything goes wrong, poor people get trampled by giants and the same characters live in eternal fear.

Almeria’s first act is the happy tale of two seas: the Mediterranean on one hand, and the “sea of plastic” on the other. The former offers beaches for tourists. The latter displays miles and miles of white “hothouses,” ever since someone discovered that the reverberation of the sun on the sand makes for highly productive growing of grapes and other fruit and vegetables. The fruit and vegetable industry has been growing steadily in Almeria since then. Since water is at a premium in this quasi-Saharan landscape, agriculture takes place in the hothouses, large fabric covered greenhouses that are complete with streets and are vaguely reminiscent of studio lots in Hollywood.

Given the rapid expansion of this new style of farming in Almeria, early practices were, as you might expect, not exactly sustainable, and some producers got into trouble (with environmentalists, with the government) for their uncontrolled use of pesticides. Recognizing the challenges posed by their growth and pesticide use, Almeria shifted its practices and became green – to the point where the area is known today as a global role-model for the use of beneficials, (i.e., good insects that destroy bad ones). Everybody’s happy: the producers who create new wealth; the consumers who enjoy tasty fruit and vegetables grown in sustainable fashion; and regulators who proudly show that everybody can get along, even with stringent regulation restricting the use of chemical pesticides.

And now for the troubled second act in Almeria. The tuta absoluta have arrived. The tuta absoluta is a creepy little bug imported from Latin America that attacks tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables (the name looks like it was created by some producer of schlock videos, doesn’t it, as in tuta absoluta vs. transformers). The war is raging as we speak, and the tuta is winning. The tomatoes I saw on my visit are so sad-looking you wouldn’t want to eat them – even as ketchup.

Additionally, it turns out beneficials are ineffective against tuta (“beneficials have gone to the beach with the tourists”, a farmer told me). The farmers are irate at the government for not letting them revert to the old chemicals that could control the tuta. They are angry at the pesticide producers for not coming back with magic new products, or not lobbying their government effectively enough to re-allow the old chemicals. Manufacturers point out local farmers often fail to show up at regulatory meetings, making pesticide manufacturers look like they are shamelessly promoting their old wares without intrinsic need. As for consumers and large retailer chains, they do not seem ready to move to a less than spotless or perfectly shaped tomato. And so everybody is mad at each other.

One might call what happened in Almeria a giant failure at co-creation (where’s the dialogue, where’s the transparency, how can we reduce the looming risk that tuta poses?). How the story will unfold is anybody’s guess, and one of the key issues is who has legitimacy to organize the co-creative process between the constituencies.

Perhaps the most touching song of Into the Woods lies at the end of the show. It is entitled Children Will Listen, and suggests that the legacy of the woods, whether good or bad, will be passed on to future generations. In Almeria as well, children will listen.

The contagious excitement for business in emerging countries

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

I am just back from a tour of duties with a large agricultural chemical company where I participated in co-creation workshops with Indian, Brazilian, Spanish and US farmers. There was so much excitement in India and Brazil that we had to say no to many local sales and technical people who wanted to take us to their farmers, while in Spain and the US, getting those workshops organized was like pulling teeth. Why is that, I wondered.

The greatest asset of emerging countries is their enthusiasm for business and their eagerness to discover new ways of competing. The people simply do not know they should be all-knowing and cynical. You can see the excitement everywhere, even at this time of global economic crisis. In India, the workshop involved a huge tent with a large group of farmers and close to twenty managers of the local subsidiary of the firm. The senior company leader for the Asia Pacific region, a highly-respected Indian gentleman now based in Singapore, role-modeled with great humility how to engage farmers in the development of new ideas. Life was fun. I was at home in the universe.

In Brazil, the first farmer who came to our workshop was the owner of a huge farm in the Cerrado region who had driven more than 100 kilometers to be with us. The town of Luis Eduardo Magalhães where we were based consisted nine years earlier of two gas stations. Today, it is a booming town of more than 40,000 people. Watching the bustling breakfast scene of farmers and dealers discussing commodity prices, and the incessant ballet of flatbed trucks in and out of the hotel, I could not help but think that the corn and soybean farmer of Iowa better realize he is up against this passionate embrace of business life by the Cerrado farmer. I myself had to drive more than 100 kilometers to get back to an airport and spent more than 24 hours through four flight segments to make it back to Boston. I barely noticed times and distances. My head was full of wonder.

In Spain and the US, we could immediately feel the lack of growth, economically and spiritually. The local subsidiaries were suspicious of any value that would come of those workshops. We had to explain what co-creation is and why it is different from what they already do. We had to prove we would not embarrass the local subsidiary. Granting us access to customers involved a favor, a concession made to the need of headquarters personnel to educate itself. There was no joy of discovery, no sense that we could innovate, nor was there any expectation that locals would learn anything. They were the experts who spoke for the customers, so what need did we have to go engage farmers directly? In the end, a couple of open-minded and innovative people in Spain and the US did sponsor the effort and because of the masterful job they did, triggered great insights, but it took an act of courage on their part.

Alarmingly, the farmers themselves exhibited the same pattern of destructive laziness. A Minnesota corn and soybean farmer told us he would like to reduce the number of applications of crop protection products from three down to two and be done by the 4th of July, so that he could go on vacation up north to the lakes region after that. I could not help but think of one of the Cerrado cotton farmers, who is spraying his fields every three days for six months of the year, mostly at night. I love watching the film where this Harrison Ford-looking character describes the hardship of fighting bugs in the Brazilian fields, because his broad smile lights up the screen every time. Who do you think will prevail in the end in a global agricultural economy?

Of course, cynicism and arrogance allow the painting of others as naïve. “Indian and Brazilian farmers are excited about innovation in agriculture” they may think, “because they do not know as much as we do.” As for me, between arrogance and naiveté, I will pick naiveté any time.