Perhaps history should be focus

When talking about modern agriculture to consumers, perhaps history should be more of the focus. After all, those who don’t know the past are condemned to repeat it.

Dr. Nevil Speer

October 27, 2017

4 Min Read
Perhaps history should be focus

My daughter started high school this fall. Over the years, we’ve developed a fun daily habit -- this year is no different. When we talk about her day, the starting question usually goes something like this: “So, any stories today?” And because she’s always anticipating that line of questioning, it’s proven pretty effective in terms of initiating conversation about what’s going on at school –- be it academics, friends, whatever.

Several weeks ago that conversation turned to her human geography course. She had something she knew would pique my interest (and likely elicit a reaction): “Dad, I have story. We started watching Food, Inc. in class today.” She was right! Of course, I asked her to tell me more.

The documentary is part of a larger section covering agriculture. The instructor apparently believes Food, Inc. to be effective means to engage his students and help them get a better understanding of the realities around food and agriculture in the U.S.

But never mind Food, Inc. The unit’s accompanying worksheets are even more unbalanced. For example, there’s this description pertaining to the “Downside of the Green Revolution”. It states, for instance, that, mechanized farming also requires fuel to power farm machines which not only is expensive but also increases pollution and fossil fuel consumption. Green Revolution pesticides have arguably caused pollution and soil containment problems because they drain through the ecosystems in which they are used. Workers frequently exposed to these chemicals have suffered health problems from poisoning. Green Revolution crops also required more watering, which put a strain on already lower water supplies. The increased use of Green Revolution seeds has pushed out local strains, creating genetic uniformity in most crops worldwide. This genetic uniformity leads to increased vulnerability to diseases and pest infestations.

That’s enough to depress anyone – especially if you don’t have any background in agriculture. Based on that description, we should all be advocating a return to subsistence agriculture.

However, no one really wants to do that (even if they say they do). As I’ve thought through this, my frustration is founded in the absence of any broader context. That is, there’s no discussion about the influence of hunger, or worse, famine, on the shaping of cultures over time. This is a human geography course and that seems inherently critical to the discussion.

From that perspective, the curriculum reveals just how much we take food for granted. Food is an abundant resource; but it hasn’t always been that way. No one describes the historical connotation better than author Johan Norberg (Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, c. 2016): “Getting enough energy for the body and the brain to function well is the most basic human need, but historically, it has not been satisfied for most people. Famine was a universal, regular phenomenon, recurring so insistently in Europe that it ‘became incorporated into man’s biological regime and built into his daily life’…It has been estimated that 200 years ago some 20% of the inhabitants of England and France could not work at all. At most they had enough energy for a few hours of slow walking per day, which condemned most of them to a life of begging. The lack of adequate nutrition had a serious effect on the population’s intellectual development as well, since children’s brains need fat to develop properly. Some thinkers at the time assumed this would always be the case. In the eighteenth century, the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus concluded that human numbers would always outrun the amount of food available.”

Thus, Norberg provides us an apt illustration of how the world might look without agricultural innovation.

Unfortunately, my daughter’s classmates aren’t provided with any appreciation for that influence and how it’s advanced our quality of life. Again, we take it for granted. Thankfully, my daughter has some background to ask discerning questions about the material that’s being presented.

The unit has provided great opportunity to talk with my daughter about agriculture in a deeper, more discerning manner. But I’m doubtful that’s happening in many of the other homes; most (if not all) of the other students don’t live in a home where both parents are employed in the agricultural industry. Therefore, they’re left with a narrow, disparaging view of how we grow and process our food.

Agriculture is too often presented as a culprit –- be it in schools, on college campuses, and across mainstream media. In response, we often punch back by declaring that we just need to “educate consumers.” But be careful what you ask for: the social studies teacher is likely convinced he’s “educating” students (consumers) about agriculture.

My daughter’s classroom experience has forced me to re-evaluate how the food and agricultural industry communicates with the general public (not to mention the educational system). Maybe “educating” people about agriculture needs to go even deeper. It’s clear we have work ahead of us if we want to instill some meaningful appreciation for food and agriculture.

In discussing all this with my daughter, and providing her some real context, she says that perhaps we’re missing a great opportunity. We need to focus more on history, and less on agriculture. Maybe she’s on to something – after all, those who don’t know the past are condemned to repeat it. And I’m confident none of us want to do that.


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