What Does an Agricultural Scientist Worry About in the Food Supply (Part 1)

Edvard Munch's, the Scream[social_buttons]

Lots of people in America are worried about their food – usually not about having enough food, but mostly about things that might be in their food that could potentially hurt them or their children.  People also worry about the environmental impacts of food production.  At one level I’m glad that people are engaged in this way and I do believe that there are legitimate concerns.   I happen to think that some of the fear about food is misplaced.

I believe that much of this fear stems from a limited understanding of toxicology, molecular genetics, and also what farming is actually about today.  Very few Americans have any real contact with farming.  Frankly, some of this fear is also driven by the activities of businesses and organizations with a vested economic interest in alarming people.

I’ve been working as an agricultural scientist for 32 years.  I’ve had the opportunity to learn about lots of crops grown all over the world.  I’ve been involved with all sorts of different technologies.  I’ve seen huge changes in agriculture over time. So from all of this experience, do I worry about anything to do with food?  Yes, absolutely I do worry! But my list of worries is a little different from the norm

What I don’t worry about

Honestly, I don’t worry much about pesticides.  The EPA conducts such a comprehensive risk assessment and uses such big safety factors that I’m quite comfortable with their regulatory over-site.  I don’t worry about GMO crops either because I have observed the way that the industry, regulators and the academic community thought-through the issues well in advance of commercialization (e.g. since the late 1980s and the first GMO crops were sold in 1996).  There has probably never been a large-scale technology implemented with more care and less problems than biotech crops.

What I do worry about

So you might well be thinking, “Sure, this guy is just an industry-insider that sees everything through rose colored glasses!  He’s just about “happy talk” when it comes to modern agriculture.”  Well, in fact I don’t think that everything is great with modern agriculture, and there are a number of things that do honestly worry me about our food supply and things that I think other people should be concerned about as well.

I’ve already blogged about some of these concerns including the way that an important food crop like wheat is falling behind other major crops, or the way that virtually all farming technologies are being kept out of Africa.  I don’t mean to be alarmist, but these qualify as real risk issues and probably deserve much more attention than pesticides or GMOs.  Here is the rest of my “Agricultural Scientist’s Worry List”:

  • The limited adoption of the no-till farming in the US and especially in Western and Eastern Europe
  • Climate change impacts on agricultural production (that are already starting)
  • The “waste” of the energy content in animal manures when they are used as fertilizer instead of fuel
  • Irrational water law (which will only become more problematic because of climate change)
  • Demographic trends that threaten the future of the agricultural work-force

I’ll be posting a series of blogs about these issues over the next week or two (or three?).  I appreciate any comments about them on this site, or you can email me at [email protected].  I promise I won’t distribute your email address to anyone and I’ll only answer or notify you of new posts if you request that I do so. When the series is over I will write a summary of the categories of feedback that I get (positive and negative) without mentioning any individual contributors.

Image of Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting,  “The Scream” from oddsock.

  1. Cathy Richards

    Looking forward to your posts.

    Can you also address the address of pesticide safety for farmers? My understanding is that farmers and their families have higher than average rates of cancers that are associated with pesticides. This is a reason why I chose organic when feasible, because I don’t think my food choices should increase someone else’s risk of disease.

    Also interested in monocrops vs mixed crops.


  2. Steve Savage

    I was once doing interviews with farmers in a crop that is often sprayed with what even I would consider a dangerous chemical (for the farmer, not us because it breaks down long before harvest). They told me, “yea, farmers who use that chemical are dying-off – in their 80s ad 90s.” My understanding is that nitrate in well water is a bigger threat for rural populations. I think it is great that you desire to favor someone else’s health with your food dollars, but Organic may not really do that (upcoming series of posts in a month or so).

    As for mono-cropping vs poly-cropping, it is just too inefficient to mix crops on a commercial scale. What is done is to rotate crops in a given field and that breaks pest and weed cycles. If there wasn’t the risk of Fusarium infection that I describe in part two of this blog series, corn belt farmers could include more wheat or barley in their corn/soy rotations and actually get higher yields of those crops.

  3. Jess

    Very much looking forward to these posts.

    Briefly, are you concerned that farmers ARE using no-till farming at all, or that it is only being done on a limited basis?

    Also, to what extent do you think the “inefficiency” (I assume you mean economic) of poly-cropping is due to government subsidies manipulating agricultural markets?

  4. Douglas Hvistendahl

    I would like to see more work done on the intensive horticulture front. Specifically, really large production is possible, but there is little or no machinery really suitable for this type of truck farming. If I am wrong, I’d like to know names and addresses of manufacturers.

  5. Dulce Cueva

    Hi Steave,
    Thank you very much for your insightful articles. It would be of tremendous value to me if you could answer the following two questions . Thank you so much.

    Has your profesional carreer (Agricultural Science) met your personal/profesional expectations?

    What do you like least about your profesion?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *