Think Outside the Box

by Tom Larson

Management experts now talk about thinking "outside the box" to convey the idea that itís OK to look at new ideas and new connections between issues. This concept is valuable when we look at the interconnectedness of agriculture. We deal with capturing solar energy and converting it into plants and animals, hopefully making a decent living in the process. We look at the mineral cycle, water cycle, and nutrient cycle and do our best to utilize them within their capacity to renew themselves.

The most important element of this series of cycles and events is the human element. How we relate to nature and how we relate to each other in large part determines how well we do in life. We, as farmers and ranchers, are not too good about relating with "town folk," but we do a pretty fair job of relating with nature. Maybe thatís why we feel frustrated when we "just canít get fair prices" for our products. We are so involved with the pain and fun of production agriculture that we seldom go "outside the box" to relate to urban folks, researchers and politicians. We need to improve those relationships by asking questions, offering comments, and sometimes being a pain in the posterior.

Politics is one of my favorite areas of involvement. Politicians, bless their hearts, come and go, but bureaucrats are forever. Our elected officials make the spirit and the letter of the law the best way they know how. Bureaucrats, while frequently hamstrung, interpret and carry out the spirit and letter of the law. Whatís lacking in this process is a comprehensive view of the situation that led to the creation of the law or rule in the first place. Ever get that frustrated feeling?

There is hope, however. Countries and governments around the world are actually consulting with people that they interact with, so that the frustration level goes down and the governing process is more effective (and probably cheaper).

Biotechnology is a hot issue worldwide, and last spring I was invited to attend a conference in Brussels, Belgium. A research scientist, Dr. Margaret Mellon, and I were the only people from the U.S. to attend, but farmers, lawyers, politicians, scientists, and environmentalists attended from Europe and Africa. Our mission was to look at the social consequences of biotechnology and the issues surrounding it. We were not to come to any conclusions, but to speak freely and openly. Policy makers from the European Parliament were on hand to listen and observe.

The European policy makers have decided that they can make more effective decisions, before they act, if they involve those people who will be most affected by the policies. It is cooperation and collaboration at its best. It builds better relationships and better policy, policies that ultimately affect all of us. It is in our best interest to take an active part in this process because only by serving others can we fully serve ourselves.

Tom Larson farms near St. Edward, Nebraska. He served as NSAS's president from 1995-1997.

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