On truth and industrial agriculture

A debate on NPR this morning has me thinking about the dividing lines we often draw as we attempt to solve problems. In this five-minute spot, “American Farmers Say They Feed the World,” two camps debate the benefits of large-scale industrial-style farming.

Reporter Dan Charles staged a debate between Charlie Arnot, at the Center for Food Integrity, and Margaret Mellon with the Union of Concerned Scientists– effectively positing a divide between farmers and the environment. He wanted to probe the veracity of an idea he says is held by many U.S. farmers, that it is their responsibility to feed the world. According to the big-ag vision, in order to fulfill that promise, farmers will need genetically modified seeds and new pesticides.

This was the moment in the story that especially captured my attention, because it reflects what’s at stake with honeybees. Charles continues:

“This is why the words ‘feed the world’ grate on the nerves of people who believe that large-scale, technology-driven agriculture is bad for the environment and often bad for people.”

It’s the “and” in that phrase that startled me, ringing out like a double negative in one of the ESL classes I sometimes teach. It seemed as simple as a grammatical error. Why repeat the obvious? What’s bad for the environment is always bad for people. We have nowhere else to go. Planet earth is the only environment there is to speak of.

Similarly, what’s good for honeybees is good for us. What’s bad for honeybees is bad for us. All of this is intricately connected, beautifully complicated. There are entire webs of connection uniting pollinators, farming, food, and hunger.

So Charles called in a referee, economist Christopher Barrett, who offered a paraphrase of the statement physicist Niels Bohr made famous: “Sometimes the opposite of a truth isn’t a falsehood, but another truth.”

The industrial farmer who depends on pesticides is trying his best to feed his own family, and may believe it’s the only way to make a difference in the global food system. The commercial beekeeper may depend on a trade he knows to be unsustainable. In turn, the domestic food system depends on the work of his bees.

This is the paradox that exposes those webs of connection. Depleted soil and weakened honeybees are a reflection of the mess we’ve made. We’re all tangled up in the consequences of past choices, and we’re all doing our best to get out. We just see things differently.

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