Country Corner

The debate swings on emotion

In the post-scientific world, you’ll need more than just facts

Northwest Missouri farmer and Today’s Farmer contributor Blake Hurst recently participated in an Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debate in the urban canyons of New York. Topic of the debate was “Organic food is marketing hype.” Hurst was on the team in support of that statement. And, by vote of the debate’s audience, Hurst’s team took a drubbing. Before the debate, 21 percent of the audience voted for the motion, 45 percent against, and 34 percent were undecided. After the debate, 21 percent were still for the motion, 69 percent against, and just 10 percent remained undecided.

My guess is the outcome was predetermined by the audience as much as the skill of the debate teams. It wouldn’t have mattered if Hurst’s team unfurled reams of carefully annotated scientific evidence and handed a copy to each audience member. We live in a post-scientific world. Organic versus conventionally grown crops isn’t a matter of scientific debate—it’s a matter of the heart. Out East, the organic movement has captured plenty of hearts.

A few weeks before Hurst was debating in New York, Bayer CropScience’s Bill Buckner spoke before an assembled crowd at this year’s Commodity Classic in San Diego. Buckner cited a stack of statistics about what crop protection products have meant for food production in the world. He made the case that scientifically and statistically, crop protection products are a hugely important part of agriculture. But Buckner, who heads Bayer CropScience’s North American business, said that science isn’t enough. He said that, for the consuming public, science takes too long to understand. “To understand a product and the science behind it, you have to have an interest in it. People are sound bite individuals these days,” said Buckner.

Buckner said that agriculture as in industry needs to communicate at a level that uses emotion to penetrate the consumer’s mind.

I agree. Except agriculture is too late.

For 40 years now, agriculturists—convinced that somehow common sense and scientific truth would win the day—have pushed on with defending farming with cold facts. Meanwhile, agriculture’s opponents, with their tailored and selective science, went for the heart. I refer you to the debate results above to see who is winning.

With European airports shut down and a mass of humanity stranded by the ash plume from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull, a vulcanologist at the University of Iceland floated a theory to news reporters that global warming causes increased volcanic activity. Melting ice caps would lighten the load for land masses, creating land lifting, and magma chambers getting the chance to have their way with the earth’s crust.

It’s a theory. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s balderdash. But, you can’t argue with the timing. When you want to advance your agenda with science or pseudo science, you have to strike while people are emotionally receptive to it. Hundreds of thousands of stranded travelers will be volcano haters now. Why not capitalize on that hate? A little science and a little emotion, that’s how you win it.

Let’s join Hurst and Buckner in trying to change minds about agriculture now. We do have voices. We can muster emotion. We have what’s left of science. And, we have a few strong-willed proponents who aren’t afraid of the status quo or the politically correct. Here’s Michael Specter, a writer for the New Yorker speaking at a TED conference in April. Here he talks about upcoming food shortages in Africa:

The most mindless epidemic we’re in the middle of right now is this absurd battle between proponents of genetically engineered food and the organic elite. It’s an idiotic debate. It has to stop. It’s a debate about words, about metaphors. It’s ideology, it’s not science. Every single thing we eat, every grain of rice, every sprig of parsley, every brussel sprout has been modified by man.

...This has nothing to do with science. It’s law; it’s morality; it’s patent stuff. You know science isn’t a company. It’s not a country. It’s not even an idea; it’s a process. It’s a process—and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t—but the idea that we should not allow science to do its job because we’re afraid is really very deadening, and it’s preventing millions of people from prospering.

...If we continue to act the way we’re acting, we’re guilty of something that I don’t think we want to be guilty of—high-tech colonialism. There’s no other way to describe what’s going on here. It’s selfish, it’s ugly, it’s beneath us, and we really have to stop it.

Now there’s a little emotion. Not that hard, is it?

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