Competition, Collaboration and the Games We Must Learn to Play

In a previous blog about personal leadership I shared thoughts about the role of competition as a driver for sustainability. To put these thoughts to action I started a University of Cambridge team to compete in the EcoChallenge competition. During the course of the EcoChallenge the University of Cambridge team grew, our number of competitors grew, and their team members and achievements grew, but we still prevailed as the highest ranked team in the UK, even beating Cambridge’s traditional rival, Oxford University. I was humbled by the CISL MSt cohort 7 and 8 members that joined the team, took actions such as writing letters to local leaders back in their home countries, used public transportation, reduced their meat consumption/adapted a more plant-based diet, and so much more. Despite my role as team captain, as is default for those that create the teams, I was not the highest scoring member of the team, perhaps not even the most active member, and many of the challenges I picked for myself were less challenging than those of my teammates. Instead, I challenged myself in different ways, such as, taking the role of cheerleader, advocate, organizer, strategist. I made public announcements, virtual and in-person, to encourage membership; familiarized myself with all of the challenges, how they related to climate-change, and engaged with people on these subjects, encouraging action; I chose our opponents strategically, and at different times, for instance, when an opponent would be surpassed, another more advanced opponent (in members and/or points) would be challenged; opposing teams were also chosen from similar areas (i.e. university, course program, etc.).

There was certainly a desire from the team to win by overcoming opponents in points and members, but the game was essentially about acting on climate change. In the “game” of climate change we are all potentially losers, so it’s not about beating your opponent in the traditional sense. Addressing climate change is more about collaboration, even with opponents.

I was recently introduced to an Israeli game called Matkot, a type of Paddle Ball. The game is played by hitting a small rubber ball to the other player using a wooden racquet. In the version that I played, the point was not to get the ball by the other player, as in tennis, Ping-Pong, or any other racquet sport I know. Rather, the point of the game is to encourage a good volley. If you serve a bad pass to your partner and they miss the ball the game is less exciting, less fun. Interestingly, there are not winners or losers in this game—at least in the version I was playing. Considering the sustainability challenges facing humanity, I think there should be more games like Matkot where people can interact with each other in fun and exciting ways and, in doing so, learn to become better collaborators.

There is a noticeable difference between many of the organic and conventional farmers that I’ve interacted with over the years. The organic farmers tend to be more open to sharing ideas and techniques with other organic farmers. They might say—what cover crops did you use; what can you tell me about managing bee colonies; try this dibbling technique, etc. While no members of my cohort are farmers, I do know they are all passionate about sustainability. In the spirit of collaboration, Matkot and organic-farmer knowledge-sharing, I want to take this opportunity to describe a hypothetical game about sustainable food systems, collaborative in nature, without the traditional winners and losers, while also educational, and hopefully fun all at the same time.

In this game, unlike lessons learned from Monopoly, the goal is not to own everything and bankrupt your opponents. Humanity is faced with sustainably providing food and fiber to an estimated global population of 10 billion people by 2050. So, think of that as a farmer in the number of seasons to get things right, or as a player as the number of turns in the game. In this game, players are different types of farmers—urban, rural, back-yard, hydroponic, soil-based, organic, etc. Certain “event” cards are played, such as, hurricanes, flooding, pest infestations, etc. and the different types of farmers are affected to different degrees, unless they have played cards to make them more resilient. Perhaps the urban, warehouse hydroponic farmer dependent on LEDs for plant photosynthesis is affected by power outages more than the rural farmer, but perhaps the rural farmer is more affected by flooding—unless they have the compost card, for instance (i.e. increased soil organic matter (SOM) helps with water infiltration and topsoil runoff).

I don’t yet have a detailed plan to take this game forward, but I think planting the seed here, with a group of smart, passionate, colleagues committed to sustainability, is a good place to start.

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A Systems Approach to Address The Practice of Continuous Cropping in International Fresh Produce Trade

Border towns like Nogales, Arizona are fascinating places full of people and goods passing from one side to the other, usually funneled through ports-of-entry (POE) where their flow is regulated by various government officials. With inputs, outputs and regulation of flow, POEs offer a large-scale, physical example for describing Systems Thinking. Sankey Diagrams depict energy flows and work especially well within the context of POEs and Systems Thinking.

Nogales Imports - 2017

A watershed includes the tributaries that contribute to a river and in a similar way a foodshed includes the tributaries of a food system. The Sankey diagram above depicts fresh produce imports through Nogales, Arizona, one of the largest inland POEs for food in the world in truckload equivalents­ of 40,000 lbs. The commodity types are organized by their plant families as well as more general terms used in describing rotational crops, before feeding into all fresh produce imports through the Nogales, AZ POE from 2017.

The practice of continuous cropping, planting the same crop from year after year, leads to a host of problematic issues including depletion of soil nutrients, declining yields over time, soil compaction, etc. Farmers that have made infrastructure investments such as drip irrigation or protected structure (greenhouse, shade house, etc.) or investments into their operation’s capabilities, for example, Food Safety or Organic certifications to enable market access, are incentivized to use their improved land or operations each year. Markets develop around their product but at the same time the practice of continuous cropping becomes reinforced from one season to the next.

Rotational crops are one effective way to address the practice of continuous cropping and may be described in general terms of “fruits,” “roots,” “beans” and “leafy.” In more technical terms, different plant families (i.e. Solanaceae, Apiaceae, Fabaceae, Brasicaceae) are generally suitable as rotational crops, though, resource availability, soil type, climate, pathogen pressure, markets, post-harvest requirements, etc. also need to be carefully considered.

While also enhancing biodiversity, planting different plant families from one season to the next helps to break the cycle of pathogen build-up and other problems related to continuous cropping. The annual rotation of crops also helps reduce costly external inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, etc., all of which contribute to greenhouse gases including nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2).

Rotational crops can be non-commercial, such as Sunn Hemp, a legume that works well for building organic Nitrogen in the soil and Soil Organic Matter (SOM) to support microbial activity. Certain rotational crops can also be harvested for commercial use while achieving similar benefits for the soil as the non-commercial rotational crop options. Farms with limited land or improved infrastructure may be more interested commercial rotational crops as they may not be able to afford to leave fallow their improved infrastructure.

Farmers and their marketer counter-parts in a globalized world can use Sankey Diagrams of their international foodsheds to better understand their food systems and to make informed decisions for potential commercial rotational crop options that ultimately benefit the farmer, the environment and the bottom-line.

The EcoChallenge: Exploring Competition as a Driver for Sustainability

What is the role of competition as a driver for sustainability? Let us first consider competition on its own. Competition is an activity where participants compete. Simple enough. The word compete originates from Latin com– ‘together’ and petere ‘aim at’, so competition is about an activity where participants come together with an aim. One may compete against oneself or compete against others. In either case there’s an action of coming together with an aim.

Drawdown, the #1 Best-selling environmental book of 2017, identifies and describes the 100 most substantive, existing solutions to address climate change. Enabled by the Northwest Earth Institute and Project Drawdown, let us take aim and collective action toward these solutions through friendly competition—the Drawdown EcoChallenge (April 4-25, 2018).

Having lead my company to be recognized as Arizona’s Greenest workplace (2014) and The Best Renewable Energy Collaboration in Mexico (2015), I have some experience in competitions for sustainability. One thing I really like about competitions for sustainability is the ability to engage participants and elicit passion from them about a cause they may not know much about. In this way I find competition to be an effective form of education. The learning experience is not instantaneous, however. One thing I admire about the Drawdown EcoChallenge is that it takes place over a period of two weeks, overlapping with Earth Day I might add. This is very different than most sports competitions which typically last only a few hours. Considering the duration of the event, the EcoChallenge really seeks to develop sustainable habits among the participants. Through the development of habits, which come with time, the actions or challenges the participants select for themselves may last longer than the competition itself.

The EcoChallenge challenges are conveniently organized into seven sectors—Electricity Generation, Food, Women and Girls, Buildings and Cities, Land Use, Transport and Materials. As of this post, there are 954 participants taking on challenges within the Food sector. Materials, a distant second, has 637 participants. Fortunately, my work is largely focused within the Food sector, so I may be able to support my teammates in this challenge with insight and resources from within my sector. In addition, my work within the fresh produce industry within the Food sector gives me insight on Refrigerant Management, the number one ranked solution to addressing climate change, as identified by Drawdown.

Another aspect I like about the EcoChallenge is that the actions are very attainable. While considering whether to compete, I posted details about the competition on an online general forum to gauge interest among some of my peers. The first response I received pointed out how “many [of the actions] are super simple and things I would love to include as new habits in day-to-day life.” This feedback of enthusiasm and support was enough motivation for me to immediately sign up and create a team.

Figuring out the scope of the team was the next step. I didn’t want to create a team that was so large in scope that the participants would lose their sense of team spirit. For instance, a team Earth or team Humanity would be too large, unless of course we were competing against another inhabited planet faced with environmental peril or some alien (or robot) species. I also considered team formation by country or city, but this isn’t the Olympics and I’m not in local government. Competing at the company-level and challenging a competitor within the fresh produce sector would have been fun, but I’ve already done that a few times through other sustainability competitions. College and department-level teams were also considered but potential membership numbers could be lower, especially since my college and department are both relatively new to the University. For this competition I ultimately elected to create a team at the University level, The University of Cambridge. I selected this in-part because there are at least two other Universities currently competing in the EcoChallenge. In challenging another University, I figured we could tap into existing sentiments of rivalry to drive team membership and engagement. In addition, I will also be on the University campus during the event, as opposed to the office, so there’s greater potential to recruit, motivate, support and ultimately win. The competition is free, team membership is open to everyone and we can only win. Join us. Game on.

Certified Organic in an Age of Synthetics

For many years my family practiced an intense form of conventional agriculture. At the beginning of each season we would cover the growing beds with plastic mulch and fumigate with methyl bromide to sterilize the soil. Young plants in trays of 200 cavities each would be taken from the nursery and transplanted into the sterile ground. The plants were then raised primarily on synthetic Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) through a drip irrigation system. Various pesticides, herbicides and fungicides were used to control the spread of pathogens. At the end of each season, there would typically be pest issues so plants would be removed and buried with a backhoe in another part of the farm.

After years of these highly extractive, conventional growing practices our soils were depleted and compacted. Lack of organic matter in the soil led to heavy mud after the summer monsoons, inhibiting the tractors and workers from entering the fields, prolonging transplant dates, shortening the growing season. The quality of our product, which had been renowned across North America with billboards announcing the arrival of our melons in San Francisco, for instance, was in steady decline. And things like soft-tip on the peppers, typically related to nutrient deficiency, kept appearing on the quality control (QC) reports. The same pest issues would return each season, growing in severity, requiring more external inputs and investment. Debts were owed and our entire approach to agriculture was in desperate need of revision.

Many farms that have found themselves in a similar situation have given up on the soil. They sheet the ground with plastic, house their fields under insect netting, plastic or glass. Plastic sacks of sterile substrates, typically derived of coconut fiber, are used to support the roots of the plants as they are fed a liquid diet of synthetic NPK. But there is a growing amount of evidence connecting the health of the soil to human nutrition, most famously beginning with the work of William Albrecht in the 1930s. And there has been more evidence showing a decline, since around the 1950s, in the nutrients of the food we eat.

We didn’t immediately set out to be USDA certified Organic farmers. With our soil in such a poor state, we needed a broad range of tools to address the recurring pest issues, we had a business to run, employees that depended on us, and a single application of a prohibited substance would set the required three-year transition period back to zero. Slowly, however, after seven years, our soils have improved and we are now in our third and final year of the transition to Certified Organic.

The transition period has been especially difficult. On the production side, yields are typically 20-30% less than under conventional growing practices. And on the market side, without the Organic certification, there’s no premium on the sale. As of this year, there is now a certification for farms in transition, Certified Transitional. Unfortunately, Certified Transitional has not really caught on yet despite the support of powerful companies like Kashi and Patagonia Provisions. However, certified Organic has continued to grow in market share year-after-year and there is pressure to fill market demand.

The soil vs. –ponic debate

For nearly 20 years there has been debate in the US over what growing methods should be included in organic certification of the food we eat. One side of the debate includes those in favor of foods grown in soil. The other side of the debate includes those in favor of -ponic (i.e. hydroponic, aquaponic, aeroponic) and containerized systems. There are merits to both approaches to food production and they each play a critical role in addressing needs related to hunger and nutrition in a world with an estimated population of 9 billion by 2050.

Just last week, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted 8-7 in favor of including hydroponic systems in the National Organic Plan (NOP). The recommendation of the Board will now go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a formal ruling-making process and will most likely go into effect.

To be clear, this debate primarily addresses specialty crops (i.e. fruits and vegetables), not row crops (i.e. grains, corn, soy, etc.). Furthermore, the debate currently pertains to certain high-value specialty crops such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, berries, but a lesser extent to lower-value crops such as squash, eggplant, melons, etc., which are not typically grown commercially in -ponic systems.

As a fourth-generation farmer of soil-based specialty crops that has spent the last seven years focused on transitioning all production to certified organic, when I heard the news that the NOSB voted in favor of including hydroponics, I felt like a part of me died.

Most, I think, use the terms “soil” and “dirt” interchangeably. To me, the distinguishing factor between “soil” and “dirt” is the presence or absence of organic matter, respectively. In reflecting on the debate, I find it interesting that the highly organized and well-funded –ponics & containerized side of the debate began to refer to the opposing side as, not soil-based farmers but rather those in favor of growing methods using only the “outer crust of the earth” or “outer-crustacean farmers.” This terminology seemed to shift the conversation away from “soil,” beyond “dirt” and in the direction of sterile, synthetic substrates of which coco peat would be included. In hindsight, I think the soil side of the debate should have made more effort to shift the conversation in the opposite direction toward soil “tilth,” related to the quality of the soil, or perhaps “humus,” related to the organic matter decomposed by soil microorganisms. After all, there is no tilth, humus or three-year transition period for hydroponic systems.

I have read about the importance of ecosystem services, but what about the value of micro-ecosystem services? In the past, I used to cringe at the thought of nematodes in the soil, as I think many farmers do. Little did I know at the time that nematodes are everywhere, and there are many different types of them—including some that feed on other nematodes! There are endo-mycorrhizae fungi that penetrate the plant roots, acting as an extension of the root system while protecting it from certain pathogens at the same time. Bacteria play an equal if not more important role in all of this. How do we support these micro-ecosystems and their services? I don’t think hydroponic organic systems have that answer, but as an Organic soil-farmer I can assure you that we’re working on it.