Saturday, December 27, 2014

Building Food Security With the Business of the 21st Century

     For thirteen years I enjoyed the pleasure of collaborating with the late Dr. Jerry Barrow, a plant geneticist whose career had once crossed paths with Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize winner known as the Father of the Green Revolution.  When Jerry Barrow, Isaac Reyes, Pedro Osuna-Avila, and myself observed the results obtained by transferring unculturable native endophytes into crop plants, we saw potential to craft a new and sustainable green revolution.  M. S. Swaminathan, who worked with Borlaug in India, used the term "evergreen" revolution to describe the necessary shift towards sustainability. 
     As our research progressed, I became more certain that microbes were an important key to sustainability.  The consensus among our collaborators that microbes can improve agricultural production and environmental quality, affordably and sustainably, while addressing food security demands was solid.  We may have published these convictions sooner, in a more prominent outlet, had I not insisted that we needed to integrate both scientific and socioeconomic layers.  However, I remained stubborn about this need because I understood both the benefits and the costs of Borlaug's Green Revolution.  I recognized that while Borlaug's intentions were clearly humanitarian, the top-down 'Kick-Off' strategy he implemented was inherently deceptive because he demonstrated the benefits of agrochemicals on a large scale, without also demonstrating the drawbacks. As I look today at our biochemically depleted food systems, our calorie rich, nutrient poor diets, our epidemic levels of chronic disease, and the billion hungry people on the planet today, I can only conclude that Borlaug's green revolution, albeit well intended, was questionable for building secure food systems.  I felt like a technology transfer method that empowered individuals at a more grass roots level was necessary, and might be possible today thanks to the internet. Still, I had no clear picture how such a grass roots effort might be implemented.
     As we were drafting plans and seeking funds for the research I believed would ignite our "Evergreen Revolution",  I was also dealing with a chronic pain issue that was quickly crossing a threshold.  As my work load increased so did my pain.  Soon, it seemed my life revolved around work and pain management.  Even my own family responsibilities were being ignored.  When my health became such a distraction that I simply could neither make the decisions nor focus on the data analysis my position required, my doctor suggested it was time to find a new career.  I didn't want to believe her, but I could not deny that the process of meeting my job demands was destroying my health.  I started to look for a less intense, more autonomous position, but to my dismay, I also began to experience problems with vision and balance that led to a series of falls and injuries.  My next year was spent semi-bedridden, watching my new collaboration network scatter and wondering what my future would hold. The doctors offered no effective treatment, so I had to devise my own.
     Convinced that restoring biodiversity to my microbiome would support my recovery, I found myself navigating a new world of organic food co-ops and whole food dietary supplements, and pain relief products, the most promising of which were only available through multi-level marketing (MLM).  Initially, the marketing approach bothered me.  But since I was dealing with lost income and increased healthcare costs, I could not deny the benefit of having access to high quality natural health products and medical devices that could pay for themselves. As I researched the products, I found a handful of companies that contain truly remarkable products which apply good science and address chronic and universal health concerns (nutrition, oxidative stress, pain...) more sustainably than our healthcare system can.  
      Slowly, I began researching the MLM industry, which Robert Kiyosaki calls the Business of the 21st Century.   I soon recognized that much of the reason behind the industry's bad name is that novice marketers join and learn by doing.  Many join because they are financially strapped and can't find a job, and too often, these members have unrealistic expectations about the time it takes to build an organization.  While inexperience and expectations of rapid growth open the door to bad marketing techniques, pushy sales, and poor service, the industry as a whole also opens the door for grass roots leadership development and economic opportunities.  
     Bad marketing fails quickly, because customers simply walk away. This means marketers must be savvy enough to accept coaching and mentoring, be willing to learn from their mistakes, and be dedicated to professional development.  Those who are willing to persist and evolve will succeed.  
     By making high quality products and income opportunities widely available, multi-level marketing in health and nutrition can address fundamental components of nutritional awareness, economic development, and access to healthy food.  In addition, by training successful leaders, MLM opens the door for entrepreneurship within and beyond MLM, since many use skills learned in MLM to build other businesses. 
    I now know a handful of MLM leaders who are using their residual income streams to build local organic farms and community gardens. Significantly, MLM has always provided an outlet that favors empowerment of women.  Even Norman Borlaug recognized that women drive development of secure food systems. 
     Finally, and perhaps most critically for sustainable development, MLM offers entrepreneurs the opportunity to make decisions, take risks, and lead efforts, the outcomes of which provide direct and immediate quality feedback.  This creates a learning mode that is unlike anything a student or an employee can experience because it forces the entrepreneur to take direct and immediate responsibility for his or her actions. The entrepreneur who makes a positive impact on his or her community will succeed.  
     Now, the best candidates for successful MLM must already have skill sets and resources that may be missing in the most impoverished, communities.  MLM is only likely to work in these communities for members with strong ties to external networks.  Certain charities may be able to provide such networks, building income streams from more affluent communities that channel resources into impoverished communities.  But in middle class society, where food insecurity is driven largely by cheap food, busy schedules, and insufficient consumer understanding of both personal finance and nutrition, health and nutrition MLMs offer a powerful lever for influencing both consumer understanding and resource distribution at a grass roots level. 


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