02 Jul 2001  Research & Ideas

Ray A. Goldberg

At the beginning of January, over two hundred senior executives and government officials from around the globe met at Harvard Business School for the fortieth annual Agribusiness Seminar. They represented every facet of the "global food system"—from manufacturers of fertilizer to medical leaders on the cutting edge of research. The driving force behind this gathering since its inception has been Ray Goldberg, the veritable father of agribusiness.

Along with his then HBS colleague John H. Davis, Goldberg coined the word in 1957, and that year they provided a rigorous economic framework for the field in their book A Concept of Agribusiness. That seminal work traces a complex value-added chain that begins with the farmer's purchase of seed and livestock and ends with a product fit for the consumer's table. Little more than a decade later, Goldberg followed up with Agribusiness Coordination, another influential volume that applied this method of analysis to the wheat, soybean, and Florida orange industries.

From those days to the present, Goldberg has remained an extraordinarily active and prolific scholar—the author, coauthor, or editor of 23 books, more than 110 articles, and some 1,000 cases. By the time he became professor emeritus in 1997, he had taught some seven thousand Harvard MBA students and ten thousand Executive Education participants in programs at Soldiers Field and abroad, while advising companies and countries worldwide.

With the deciphering of the genome, Goldberg has focused his most recent efforts on explaining the impact of this revolutionary discovery on the agribusiness system. "All industries that deal with living things or organic compounds will have a common language and, in turn, a common business," he asserts in "Transforming Life, Transforming Business: The Life-Science Revolution," a McKinsey Award-winning article he coauthored in the March-April 2000 issue of Harvard Business Review. "As distinctions between food and medicine fade, we will see a proliferation of crop-based drugs or 'agriceuticals.' Nor is the blurring of agriculture and pharmaceuticals limited to seeds and plants. Animals are being turned into drug-manufacturing facilities" as well. Thus, Goldberg says, bioengineering may some day lead to animals whose milk, for instance, contains antibodies effective in fighting cancer.

In response to events in Europe, from the cloning of Dolly to the recent spread of mad-cow disease, Goldberg founded an annual forum at the School where farmers, industry representatives, professors, scientists, public-policy leaders, and consumer advocates are invited to engage in no-holds-barred discussions. Known as the Private and Public, Scientific, Academic, and Consumer Food Policy Group (PAPSAC), the organization is dedicated to using a multidisciplinary approach to "assist the food system in evaluating the various impacts of technological change and nutritional and safety concerns."

Discussing these matters recently, Goldberg displays the same high level of energy and determination that have been his hallmarks throughout his life. Born and raised in Fargo, North Dakota, he started working in his father's small hay, feed, and grain business at the age of ten.

Influenced by a neighbor, Goldberg's father insisted that his only son go east to Harvard, where he majored in government and minored in economics. Elected first marshal of the Class of 1948 (an honor he reprised as chief marshal of his 25th Reunion), Goldberg graduated cum laude and entered HBS to prepare himself to return to the family business.

In his second year in the MBA Program, Goldberg cross-registered for a course "across the river" with Professor John D. Black, a prominent agricultural economist who became his mentor and convinced him to pursue a doctorate. MBA degree in hand, Goldberg delayed his journey home while he raced through the Ph.D. program in agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota in just two years. His dissertation on the soybean industry reflected the global perspective that became a constant in his later work.

From 1952 to 1955, Goldberg fulfilled his promise to his father, putting the lessons he had learned to good use as he oversaw the family's operations in Fargo. But after three years, he was ready for a change. One possibility was a job offer in New York City with an international grain company; what prevailed was an invitation to become a lecturer in the School's new Program in Agriculture and Business, headed by Davis. In the winter of 1955, Goldberg taught the first HBS course in agribusiness—a word that he and Davis preferred, he recalls, because it indicated "our integrated approach to studying all aspects of this complex sector of the world economy."

Goldberg notes that MBA students who took Agribusiness Management, an elective he taught for decades, often made significant contributions to the body of knowledge in the field. "Working in teams, they wrote research reports examining a wide range of issues," he beams, "from land reform in Mexico to the development of the genetically modified tomato."

"The genetic research revolution is changing our global economy and society more dramatically than any other single event in the history of humankind," Goldberg recently told a group of HBS alumni. "On the other hand, we have a worldwide agricultural economic depression and a mistrust of the science by some consumers." With so many pressing issues on the agenda, Goldberg is eager to continue to make lasting contributions. He currently chairs a National Research Council subcommittee planning the direction of future research efforts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He has also been asked to head task forces determining future food policy for the Netherlands and the state of Kentucky. "I can't tell you how much I still enjoy going to work every day," he concludes.