• Shane Thomas

The Tyranny of Zero Sum Thinking in Agriculture

Zero Sum Thinking in Agriculture

One of the biggest myths out there in any situation is that we are playing a zero sum game, leading us to apply zero sum thinking. We are all competitive, but that doesn’t mean someone else has to lose. However, that’s the dominant mindset everywhere, including agriculture. In my opinion, that’s something thing that holds the industry back from forward progress. Whether it be in the organic vs. conventional space, variable rate vs. flat rate or otherwise.

What’s best depends on your goal posts. And often when we think we are “winning” and the other person is losing, both parties are in fact losing.

So what is a zero sum thinking?

“the perception that one persons gain would be another persons loss” and by the saying "your gain is my loss" (or conversely, "your loss is my gain")

Poker is a zero sum game. In order for someone to win, there needs to be someone else losing on the other end.

Arguments regarding a specific topic in agriculture often turn into arguing to be right instead of discussing how everyone gets to a better outcome. Working towards better outcomes creates a bigger “pie”, making everyone better off. This sounds fluffy and impossible, but it’s not. There are always opportunities to improve our industry – and not every suggestion is going to contribute to that, but even the most out there comments can be the spark necessary to ignite an idea or new concept.

Zero sum thinking comes down to the “zero sum fallacy” the idea that there is a fixed pie and if one person gets more that means the other person gets less. This is the way most people think about negotiation, business, arguments and more, but it couldn't be further from the truth.

Tyranny of the Or and the Great of the And

One concept I am fond of is the “tyranny of the or” and the “greatness of the and”, conceived by Jim Collins who has written numerous best selling business books. I have referenced this concept in numerous posts before, but it is applicable in many situations.

We often think of everything as a trade off. It’s not natural to consider how ideas could be better together, or how concepts form one idea could be synergistic to the other. We evolved to think in win/loss terms and abide by the assumption that there is an antagonistic nature of social relations, shared by people in society based on the implicit assumption that a finite amount of goods exists in the world, in which one person’s winning makes others the losers. We also tend to be linear thinkers and linear thinking tends to lead us to average results. Systems thinking, where we are working to enable better outcomes through integration and convergence of ideas, is where we want to be.

This is also reinforced by our discomfort with grey areas. We think in absolutes. Again, nothing is absolute. Definitive arguments in agriculture, such as what the best rate of nitrogen to apply, what the best time to sell your canola crop is or what the best crop rotation is are largely arbitrary and almost everyone could benefit from better understanding the situation in which one option is better than the other, which only comes from discussion, which ultimately creates a bigger pie for everyone.

One prime example of the application of “the greatness of the and” in agriculture is the concept of “GMO organic crops”, which I first considered after reading books and content from Rob Saik, CEO of AGVisorPRO when he’s looking to the future of what’s necessary to produce enough, balanced with environmental and societal trends. On the organic side of the equation, most people would consider GMO not to qualify. And on the GMO side of the equation, many would prefer to utilize all the tools in their toolbox. The opportunity? Understanding that they can be mixed. It isn’t black and white. It’s about looking for ideas that enable better outcomes for all sides of the coin; in this case society and farms.


In agriculture we have the opportunity to embrace the greatness of the and to continue to build out a stronger industry. By focusing on achieving better outcomes and growing the pie, we can build up individuals, organizations and the industry overall. This mind set shift is subtle, but dynamic.

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