Could We Please “Restore Sanity” In The Discussion of Food/Farming?

Last week I attended the San Diego version of the “Rally to Restore Sanity.”  I’m glad I did.  Even in this Southern California bastion of political conservatism, there were at least 200 people meeting at Dick’s Last Resort to watch the DC event and to encourage each other that we are not alone as people who don’t like the hyper-partisan trend in politics.   I actually haven’t seen any reporting on the main or local versions of this event that captured it’s spirit or age-diversity.  I think maybe this sort of satire is a little too subtle for many people to understand.

Even so, I wish there was a rally or some other mechanism to “restore sanity” in the discussion of food politics.

Food Politics Are Not That Different

The Comedy Central team does a great job of pointing out the absurdity and imbalance in the world of cable news.  They call them out for promoting irrational fear (both from the right and from the left).  From my perspective as an agricultural scientist, there is a similar set of voices out there promoting fear about agriculture.  These sources present the same sort of “circus mirror view” of modern agriculture that John Stewart described for other politics at the DC rally.  In general politics, people carelessly throw around accusations of “racism,” or “socialism,” and compare people to Hitler.  In food politics the equivalent emotive terms are things like “industrial agriculture“,”profit-driven” and “Frankenfoods.”  In neither setting are people being given balanced information.

These voices relentlessly demonize farmers in a way that completely misrepresents the kind of hard-working, risk-taking, environmentally concerned people I know them to be.  They paint a monolithic image of farming as an environmental disaster with no recognition of the great advances that have been made.  These voices also demonize any “corporate” actors even though these are the entities that have invested the billions of dollars necessary to give us any hope of feeding the world over the next few decades.

These voices generate continual, breathless predictions of impending disaster related to GMOs, even though no such thing has happened after nearly 15 years of deployment of that technology on billions of acres of farm land.  There seems to be no statute of limitations when it comes to saying that “the sky is falling!”

Agriculture Has Problems and Challenges, But This Isn’t Helping

As Stewart pointed out, sources of frantic hyperbole do not cause our problems, but they make it far harder to solve our problems. It is no real surprise that the industry with the largest, physical footprint (billions of acres) would have real environmental issues.  What is not acknowledged by most of the fear purveyors is that we have learned  how to minimize or eliminate important problems and made real progress.  Now we should be talking about how to implement the best environmental practices on the hundreds of millions of acres of “conventional” farmland.  We can’t keep pretending that something like “Local” or “Organic” will ever be more than a small contribution to the overall challenge.

We need to discuss why not all farming is not being done in the best possible way.  It is not because of some “vast corporate conspiracy.” It is not because we lack for “family farms” or “responsible farmers.”    It is because we as a society do not “monetize externalities” (pay for the true environmental costs) in a way that would help farmers to afford certain changes.  It is because we don’t have farmland lease structures that make it practical for growers to make the multi-year investment that it takes to transition land into the sort of “drought proofed” and “pollution protected” soils that are possible.  We can make some significant progress, but not by demonizing each other.

As with the rest of our national politics, the stakes are high.  Feeding the world in an age of climate change while protecting the environment is a huge and critical challenge with major strategic, economic and moral implications.  The topic deserves sane discourse, not alarmism and demonization.  This is another sphere were we desperately need to “Restore Sanity.”

You are welcome to comment on this post or to email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

Rally poster image from Cliff1066

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Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) with >30 years of experience in agricultural technology. He has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 13 years as an independent. He also has a little vineyard in his back yard near San Diego. His website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc


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14 comments to Could We Please “Restore Sanity” In The Discussion of Food/Farming?

  • Wait, does this mean Frank is going to outwardly support GM while sitting on his ass doing nothing in the spirit of bipartisanship….

    Or am I getting the message wrong?

  • I think it’s important to talk about politicization and polarization of agriculture, but we need to remember that, just like in politics, the problems aren’t one sided. I can’t tell you how frustrated I am when someone says genetic engineering is “going to save the world” or “feed all the hungry” (see the Croplife debacle, which I’m still so mad about I can’t manage to write a post on it). The hyperbole doesn’t help anyone. We need to be clear, firm, and unified in the message that genetic engineering is just one of many tools that will be needed to provide enough nutritious food to a growing population under unpredictable environmental conditions.

  • Anastasia,
    You are right that biotechnology is only one component of what is needed, and there is also an integration of technology piece- chemicals, breeding, equipment, information technology…

  • Dario Bressanini

    Hi. I am Off Topic but I have a question for you guys ;-)
    In your opinion, what is the best and *effective* way to reply, in a debate on GMOs, to the objection that “we don’t know the long term effects on the environment and on humans, so we should not use them”

    I have a set of answers that I usually use but I do not find them particularly convincing when talking in front of non-experts.
    Any help?

    ciao Dario (from Italy)

    • That’s a good question. Thanks for stopping by Biofortified, Dario. To answer I think we need to think about what long term means. There are a lot of things and foods in our lives that we don’t know the long term environmental or health effects of. Computers and electronics in general, for example. Some foods that have only recently appeared in our diets are kiwi and star fruits. There are lots of things we won’t know the long term effects of until they arrive. Did anyone expect carpal tunnel wrist problems to be such a prevalent unintended effect of computer use? The difference between computers and GMOs, however, is that the GMOs on the market have been extensively tested for human and environmental safety, including many that were conducted by scientists not connected to or funded by corporations. Unfortunately, the scientific literature isn’t very accessible to most people. At Biofortified, we’re working on that, although it is taking some time. Check out GENERA and the other resources we’ve put together. Now, few if any safety studies are for entire generations, or for years at a time. However, the studies are conducted using established methods. Are established testing methods used currently enough to determine safety of other foods and products? If the answer is yes then we might ask why GMOs deserve special testing.

      This is totally off topic – but I love Italy. This year’s Maize Genetics Conference was in Riva del Garda and I had a chance to visit Venice and Rome while I was in country. My only complaint is that it was too early for the olive trees to be flowering.

  • Dario,

    Thats really not off-topic. I use three approaches on that question

    1. As we get to 15 years of major, commercial implementation of biotech on hundreds of millions of acres every year, there needs to be a “statute of limitations” for saying that the sky is falling

    2. Actually, the genetic modifications that are being made with modern biotechnology are tiny compared to the modifications that people have been making for millenia. Most modern crops are dramatically different from their wild origin and that was done without even know what a gene is. The most dramatic example is maize from teosinte. Here is a post I did on that: “Messing with Gene Expression in Corn”

    3. The other thing that most people don’t seem to know is that plants can only out-cross to very closely related species. The emotive term “genetic contamination” conjures up images of sinister and dangerous changes when the term “cross pollination” is what should be used. I once posted about the truely absurd fear that people had in Europe about genetic contamination from a virus resistant rootstock!
    A Sad Day for Wine. A Sad Day for Science

  • Eric Baumholder

    If you want to restore sanity to ‘the debate’ over food and farming, you need to arrange things so that insanity in the field is no longer a money-maker. So long as it’s possible to earn a livelihood from bogus food & farming claims, people will continue to tout fallacies.

  • Dario Bressanini

    Anastasia, I am curious about the “Croplife debacle” you mentioned. Can you elaborate?
    Ciao Dario

  • Mark Holliday

    Steve,

    Like politics, most people understand very little about how agriculture works, precisely the condition for effective hyperbole! Why do most people know so little about where their food (and other things!) comes from?

    Anyway, nice article old friend!

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