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A Battle Over Seeds


NextStage: Predictive Intelligence, Persuasion Engineering, Interactive Analytics and Behavioral Metrics Long ago and far away (at least in internet time) I worked for a government agency and was assigned a task that was suppose to be minimal and nominal. I’m pretty sure I was assigned this task so that I would stay out of people’s hair for a while.

Anyway, I was asked to write up a brief report — not more than 10-15 pages — about the future of food supplies across the globe for the next fifty years.

First, you must appreciate that only a government agency would think such a task could be covered in 10-15 pages.

Anyway, what I wrote ended up at about 350 or so pages and was entitled “A Battle Over Seeds”. It dealt with shifting demographics, the rise and fall of certain economies (I did note that the US economy would suffer greatly. I didn’t know why it would, only that it would) and that other countries would emerge to fill this economic hole. I did pick China and did conclude that the Chinese government would soften its approach to both people and things. I know that weather projections played a significant role and that I did write about global warming. Now it’s called global climate change and while accurate, I’m not sure the latter term is true.

There was a lot of evolution theory and modeling, food web modeling, considerations of different country populations as different species so that I could model and predict where abundances and shortfalls would occur (US caloric intake is far from the world standard and it’s fairly easy to divide the globe calorically), concepts of habitat loss, ecologic modeling, … .

Things I included that caused my supervisors to throw my work out the window were that how people received, sent and generally interacted with information would change and this change would affect neuropathies, and that these neuropathic changes would alter how people thought of food.

Stated more tractably, fast food is going global and our increasing impatience with having to wait for a file download are linked in subtle changes to how we understand and act upon information. Our brain physiology hasn’t changed yet (I think) and give it time. Having run out of environment to change in order to suit our needs we’ll soon enough start on ourselves, our internal environment, in order to suit the external environment we’ve created for ourselves.

I did conclude that new diseases would emerge from a combination of old pathogens and modern technologies, specifically travel and distribution technologies, but it wouldn’t be as “simple” as the Europeans wiping AmerInds with a cough or a sneeze because modifying environments involves in part husbanding livestock to make use of environments we don’t want for ourselves, meaning cross-species pathogens would probably result.

One thing that was obvious was the amount of social unrest that would result as scarcity bumped into an aging yet still active population.

Every once in a while I take that paper out, I look at my notes and research again, just to note what I would change now.

And this is where I take some exceptions to Brother David Morf’s Economic Systems We Can Eat. His post is elegant, well written and well reasoned. I take no exceptions to his examples or analysis.

My exception comes from his conjecture that some problems are simply too wicked to solve.

I won’t believe this. I can’t believe this. To believe and accept this conjecture is to state that in some cases there is no hope.

Whole-systems that are not Wholly Systemic

I’ll offer that there are some problems siloed systems and current technologies can’t solve. The nature of pure research is to dream, applied research is to make dreams demonstrable and (as I conjectured in A Battle Over Seeds) translational sciences would evolve to take what is demonstrable and make it realizable for the masses.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to solving any wicked problem — especially one as panthetic as food — is making sure everyone — literally — has a seat at the table. Humans aren’t at the top of the food pyramid (see Google’s Vulnerability. I often model business interactions with their audiences along evolutionary biology lines. Also market competition. You’d probably be surprised how well the models fit) by a long shot and the US, Western Europe, India and China are beginning to feel the needs to evolve downward in order to make sure everyone has something — not enough, just something — to eat.

Brother Dave does an excellent job of laying out the problem and providing some groundworks for understanding. What I’ll add is that any solution won’t be a whole-system solution unless it is created outside of the system that created it. Brother Tom Bigda-Peyton states this so eloquently as “The cause of a problem is the system that produced it.”

So my conjecture for solving the problem is get everyone involved in its solution, something alluded to in Planning for Unintended Consequences. Everybody gets a seat at the table. Top feeders and bottom feeders alike (I’m talking economic paradigms here).

What about that battle?

One of the final aspects of that paper was a recognition of people’s amazing ability to not face the problem directly, but to distance themselves from it, to give themselves and hence the problem, some room.

The examples I used were “Save the Whales”, “Save the Environment”, “Save the Nauga” (yes, that little Plains creature from which all naugahyde comes, driven to extinction thanks to the cry for cheap, plentiful and synthetic automobile and office upholstery).

All are fool’s errands (especially the last). My suggestion for avoiding the inevitable battle over seeds (if not with guns, then with economic sanctions and diplomacy. Actual battles — whether in schoolyards or on continents — only occur when certain specific conditions exist. The aggressor is confident they can win (note the previous US administration’s rhetoric about Gulf War II), believes no other options exist, is frustrated by the existing environmental situation, or is simply so hungry that self-endangering acts pose less of a threat than existing starvation does) was to cut out the middle man (see “Do unto others as if they were you.” in NextStage’s Principles). Forget the environment, forget the whales, forget the oceans, forget clean water and breathable air.

Don’t waste your time, money, effort or energy on any of those things.

Instead, save yourself (yourselves).

It is an insurmountable part of our biologies, our evolutionary heritage, that we will do anything possible to survive. Possible? To heck with “possible”, we’ll do anything imaginable to survive. And now we’ve circled back to pure and applied research and evolving translational sciences that take what is demonstrable and make it realizable and serviceable. We’re doing it with windpower and solarpower, we might as well turn our imaginations to ourselves as well.

So let’s all agree to save ourselves. Let’s match this with Don’t feed someone when you’re hungry. (another of NextStage’s Principles) and Respect people’s boundaries and limits. (yep, NextStage’s Principles #4). A little neuromathematics and you have “I don’t need everything right here right now to survive. All I need is enough.” therefore there will always be some left over for everybody else.

In the end (and I’m sure those familiar with my work saw this coming) the battle over seeds will be internally, with ourselves. No other people, no other country, no whales or owls or oceans will be involved. If we don’t do it ourselves and willingly, others will do it through altered food, drug and similar supplies via travel and distribution technologies, n’est-ce pas?

Oh, but knowing when you’ve had enough and before you’ve had too much? Just enough so that some is left over and you can offer it to the next in line?

That’s the battle I want to see.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. David Morf permalink
    2010/11/15 4:04 am

    Joseph, thanks for your comment that we should not accept that “some problems are simply too wicked to solve.” If the post had left the thought thread at that point, that a systemic wicked problem was a framework without hope, then I’d agree to that being a huge overstatement. However, happily, far from it. Rather than stopping at the notion of a framework without hope, the argument then worked through several examples to conclude that single-point interventions are unlikely to solve systemic problems in a reliable and predictable manner. The upshot was that what is needed is a process of continuous awareness, attention, and systemic operational care leading to sets of changes and responses, not a single-shot approach. That’s why the whole post points to the suggestion that a powerful and effective way to build and maintain a set of actions that can improve sustainable food scenario performance lies in enabling a fresh conversational arena. Specifically, that’s why the post suggests that food policy needs a reshaped arena where several core voices can interact. Enabling several core voices to interact, rather than continuing the dominance of the producer voice in the current USDA, will increase the ability of US food policy to apply continuous awareness, attention, and systemic operational care toward sustainable, resilient results. A case in point that came to light after the post went up is the New York Times article ( which reports that the USDA urges a cut in cheese consumption, while simultaneously helps the pizza and fast food industries to use and sell more cheese because we make a whole lot of it on the dairy farm. Bottom line, producers want to sell more cheese, and the USDA put its money where the producers wanted it. Yes, Joseph, we can do better. Absolutely.

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