Agricultural and Food Controversies

Most of us have heard that eating beef is one of the worse things we can do for the planet. Yet as we ponder the choice of arugula over Romaine hearts, we may also hear that these vegetables are sprayed with more pesticides than grain crops. So perhaps we move on to organic until we learn that organics too use pesticides, and that the production method may not make the most efficient use of our scarce resources. And so it goes, comparing the carbon footprint of local to free range, asking waiters whether there's a GMO in our soup, all while speculating whether the Farm Bill is the cause of obesity.

Where is one to turn to adjudicate the conflicting messages we hear about food and agriculture? Large agribusinesses have a lot to say on these issues, but their predictable messages about feeding the world easy to dismiss. Journalists and non-profits with earnest, academic sounding names might appear a bit more credible, but their constant drum roll of fear and paranoia, undoubtedly appealing to a certain donor and book-buying base, also makes it hard to take their pronouncements at face value. With strong emotions and vested interests on all sides, it is no wonder food and agricultural issues have become so political. And controversial.

Having the privilege and opportunity to talk to thousands of college students around the country, I'm often surprised at the air of certitude that permeates food debates. That certitude often stems from knowledge that is deep but not wide. It is cultivated from a narrow perspective of writings that blanket bookshelves and newsstands. Many fail to realize that there are thousands of scientists across the nation working on precisely those food and agricultural issues that are of such social concern.

I'm referring to our system of Land Grant Colleges and Universities that officially began with President Abraham Lincoln's pen stroke. From Maine to Florida, Texas to Minnesota, and California to Oregon are agronomists, nutritionists, economists, food scientists, entomologists,and animal scientists, among others, studying how to make our food system safer, more resilient, more productive, and more sustainable; extending that knowledge to farmers, policy makers, and when they can, consumers. While Land Grants are sometimes charged with being in the pockets of big agribusiness, any serious look at their activities will reveal robust and active research on organic and no till cropping systems, local foods and farmer's markets, obesity prevention, and food security in the US and abroad.

In that tradition, a multidisciplinary team of agricultural scientists, led by my friend and sometimes co-author, Bailey Norwood at Oklahoma State University has entered the fray with a new book, Agricultural and Food Controversies published by Oxford University Press in their accessible, easy to read What Everyone Needs to Know series (officially released on December 5th). Rather than striking a defensive or muckraking tone, as so often is the case in this genre of writing, Norwood and colleagues embrace the controversies, interpreting them as a sign of a healthy democracy struggling to deal with pressing challenges.

They reveal what the best science has to say on topics ranging from food pesticides and GMOs to the carbon footprint of beef production and the well-being of farm animals. They weigh in on synthetic fertilizers, local foods, and farm policy. Theirs is a respectful discussion of the positions taken up by different advocacy groups, but there is no hesitation in drawing conclusions where logic and science warrant. The book is an indispensable guide for understanding how the government regulates pesticides and GMOs and for seeing how competing interests can seem to have their own sets of seemingly conflicting "facts" on both sides of an issue.

While perhaps not coming right out and saying it, the authors show that many of our fears about modern agricultural technologies are overblown. Much of what has come to be accepted as the received wisdom about food and agriculture just ain't so. As the authors ironically note, however, it is precisely our fears and worries that have led to improvements in food safety, quality, and affordability. They also recognize that debates about food pesticides, GMOs, and carbon footprints are often surrogates for deeper, often unacknowledged conflicts over competing values and worldviews. As such, one shouldn't expect the controversies surrounding modern food and agriculture to quell anytime soon. But, at least we can begin to acknowledge what the debate is really about.