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Former Cargill CEO Greg Page was one of many speakers at the annual Prairie Grains Conference on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. Nick Nelson / Agweek

Tackling 'a wicked problem': Former Cargill leader addresses ag challenge

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Cargill is one of the world's most influential agricultural companies. Greg Page, its retired chairman and CEO, is of the ag world's heavy-hitters. And he thinks ag has "a wicked problem" that won't be solved easily or quickly.

But "greater transparency" — making consumers better aware of how the food system operates — is an essential starting point, he said. "In a world where nothing can be hidden, there better be nothing to hide."

Page spoke Dec. 14 at the annual Prairie Grains Conference in Grand Forks, N.D. About 900 people attended the two-day event, sponsored by seven North Dakota and Minnesota farm groups. Sessions included presentations on specific crops, as well as general-interest topics.

Page is a native of Bottineau, N.D., and a graduate of the University of North Dakota. He joined Cargill in 1974, retiring in 2015.

Cargill, based in Minnetonka, Minn., provides food, agricultural, financial and industrial products to people worldwide. It employs about 150,000 employees and had sales and other revenue of $109.7 billion in fiscal year 2017.

Ag's wicked problem has five aspects or components, Page said.

• "It's one that doesn't lend itself to discussion among people with a narrow, vehement perspective. ... Multifaceted problems just don't get solved by people with a single perspective."

• "It's the kind of problem where there are enormous trade-offs. And some of those tradeoffs are very difficult to quantify. But the costs are borne by a few, the benefits are shared by millions."

• It has "an incredible amount of uncertainty. You can do all the best things today with your fertilizer application and if the weather crosses you up, you may not get the nutrient loss outcome you expect based on all the efforts you took. But that's not an excuse not to address it.

• "It's the kind of problem with intergenerational benefits. The people in this room will spend much of the money, make much of the investment, to address this problem. And the benefits will accrue to your children and grandchildren."

• It's a problem where "yielding to the temptation that one size will fit all is a terrible, terrible mistake. These are complicated problems. Legislation by its nature can paint with a broad brush."

Agriculturalists need to change how they're operating, Page said.

That can occur in three ways: being forced to do it by regulation; being incented to do by payments (positive) or taxes (negative); and a "collective, volunteer response," he said.

Without that collective, volunteer response, change will be imposed on ag, he said.

"We need to consider the fact that how our neighbor's farm is our own business. Because that has the potential to shape society's view of exactly what all of agriculture is doing," he said. "If a reporter from an East Coast or West Coast newspaper came and spent a week in your county, would they write a story about your farm or the worst farm in the county?"

Page's advice to agriculturalists: Ask yourself, "What are the things we can do today to enlist ourselves and our neighbors and everyone in our industry to take action?"