Two Profound Truths About Food

Part two of three from our guest author Jack Bobo this week. Jack Bobo serves as Chief Communications Officer at the Intrexon Corporation.

Two Profound Truths About Food

If I’m not right, then I must be wrong. Right? Well, maybe not.

In less than 3 minutes Derek Sivers delivers a fascinating TED talk in which he demonstrates that the opposite of something we believe to be true, can also be true. This insight reminds us to be humble about what we believe, but also about what we think we “know”. Nowhere is this caveat more relevant than in discussions about food production.

Weird, or just different?

Derek takes as his example the simple fact that we in America navigate by street names. If I tell you to meet me at the Starbucks in Block 14, you will look at me like I’m crazy. The opposite of navigating by street names and street addresses is chaos. And yet, in Japan, this is exactly how they get around.

In the map below, I’ve highlighted in orange the Tokyo Starbucks located at Roppongi 7 Chome-14-1. Roppongi (municipality), 7 chome (city district), 14 (block) and 1 (building). No street address needed.


Makes perfect sense, right? Well, it does if you’re Japanese.

Derek’s example highlights that just because we see the world in a particular way, that doesn’t mean that a different way, or even the opposite way of seeing the world, can’t be true as well.

The Opposite of Organic

We see this same confusion about right and wrong, good and bad, play out in discussions about organic versus conventional agriculture. If organic production uses less fertilizer and fewer pesticides then that is good for the farm. If that is true, then farms that use more fertilizer and more pesticides per acre must be bad.

The conventional farmer does not measure the success of his farm by how few inputs he or she uses. The conventional farmer looks at the return on investment while maintaining the quality of the land. Intensive farming means less pressure to bring more land into production to feed a given population. Today’s American farmer feeds 155 people. That number was only 26 in 1960, which is why forest area and farmland in America have been stable while production soared. For the conventional farmer the opposite of productive is unproductive, which is bad for the farm and bad for the planet.

Organic farmers benefit from the dissemination of technology and agricultural practices developed for conventional farming, such as new seed varieties, drip irrigation and the application of big data. On the other hand, conventional farmers adopt conservation practices pioneered by organic farmers such as low till and no till farming and the use of cover crops.

If the world’s farms were all organic we would need 20-30% more land under cultivation. If we cut down the Amazon rain forest and converted the land into organic farms that would just about do the trick. By contrast, if the world’s farms were all conventional it might take decades longer for many conservation practices to be widely adopted. During that time, many of our rivers, lakes and aquifers would run dry.

The Opposite of a Profound Truth

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If the opposite of a profound truth can also be a profound truth, then tackling common challenges in different ways may not be a problem, but a strength.

Biology, chemistry, ecology, and physics are all forms of science, emphasizing different parts (and analyzing different scales) of the physical world. Ecology is not more or less true than biology, though it may be more or less relevant to a particular question.

What is best for my farm, may not be best for feeding the world today, while what is best for feeding the world today, may not be best for feeding the world tomorrow.

Sustainable agriculture is a journey, not a destination. What is sustainable on one farm, may not be sustainable for a nation. What is sustainable for a nation, may not be sustainable for the world. A better question to ask would be: Is agriculture more sustainable today than it was yesterday?

The answer is certainly yes and we owe that to both the organic and the conventional farmer.

The opposite of a profound truth may, indeed, be another profound truth

About the guest Author: Jack Bobo serves as Chief Communications Officer at the Intrexon Corporation.

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