Sustainability Is Good. Add Accountability.

April 17, 2018 10:56 AM
White Fence

It’s hard to find a paragraph in farm media that does not contain the word sustainable or sustainability. This concept has captured the attention of most of the food chain and more than a few farmers. Despite that, or more likely because it has no agreed upon definition, it has become a quality every product, process or player tries to claim.

These assertions are often mocked by producers who correctly point out their fuzziness. Food fad or not, it is resonating strongly enough across our value chain to show up at the most fundamental level—prices. Bluntly put, some farmers are making more profit by fulfilling some buyer’s version of sustainability.

Already food processors are competing to make their standard The Standard. These efforts, I believe, are nudging production agriculture in a good direction, even as we grumble.

Forward-thinking producers are inventing ways to embrace sustainability using myriad credentialing programs. These attempts might fall short because they avoid any downside risk. Farmers expect sustainability to look like a pile of carrots, not sticks. Alas, appeals for non-paid action rarely work in a sector indoctrinated in subsidy. And don’t even whisper “regulation.”

What does work, however, is compliance anchored in personal accountability. Accountable agriculture is—at its core—based on those three little words men find so hard to say. No, not “I love you” or even Red Green’s timeless interpretation, “I don’t know.” Unlike sustainability, accountability is an unambiguous standard: “My farm, my fault.”

Credit is Due. This is an age where liability avoidance is an entire skill set. Never admit or apologize. Instead double down, label facts fake, kill the umps, throw out the rules and wait for the next buck-passing outrage to capture the fleeting public attention span.

Accountability is exactly what our profession has spent decades avoiding, at least when it comes to blame. We claim credit for soaring yields, low food prices, rural prosperity and moral standards. Nutrients/runoff, smell/dust, poor safety record, abused rural roads—not so much. The ongoing dicamba finger-pointing, a prime example, is essentially a game of Liability Old Maid. Accountable agriculture clarifies the issue: If I use it, I own the consequences.

Consequently, accountability is the last thing others expect. Because the supply of responsible actors is low and shrinking, the contrarian view suggests serious money could be made by going long accountability. If nothing else, my-fault producers certainly stand out from the crowd.

Meanwhile, technology is making avoidance a vanishing choice. Documenting accountability along a commodity value chain has usually been more cost than benefit, but keep your eye on blockchain.

Once the kinks and scams have been worked through in blockchain systems, indelible farmer fingerprints might be detectable for more products. With easy, cheap verification, even formerly indifferent users will expect detailed input pedigrees. Your brand will be your product specs, not your production prowess. Embracing accountability today will set leaders ahead of competitors and prepare them for such market expectations.

Its Own Reward. We mark acceptance of responsibility as one benchmark for adulthood. The reason is not just the moral value of a virtue extolled by philosophers and theologians alike. Accountability makes economic systems efficient, by raising the trust level. Verbal contracts are sacrosanct in less literate economies, with absolute standards of liability. That culture of personal honor is a relic worth reclaiming from our own heritage. Insurance, regulations and litigation are clumsy, inefficient patches.

When we stand by our words, products and actions, we neutralize some of the worst influences of our culture and politics, and reinforce the ethical foundation for our capitalistic economy. We also raise our profession to a standard we now questionably claim.


John Phipps is a sixth-generation farmer from Chrisman, Ill., and a former nuclear engineer. He is the on-farm “U.S. Farm Report” commentator and writes a column for Farm Journal.

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