In most parts of America we have a school year that is based on farming. Because of this, summer has no classes - that was created because almost everyone needed three months off to work on a farm and grow food, including kids and teachers. Farming was once so fundamental that in 1862 Republican President Abraham Lincoln created the Department of Agriculture for an obvious reason - because 90 percent of Americans were farmers.
Now, farming is remote. Though 96 percent of American farms are family owned or run, only 1 percent of Americans actually work on them. Rather than requiring 90 percent of a population for food creation, we have gotten so good at farming efficiently that we can feed hundreds of millions of people using a tiny fraction of our workers.
But the success of farming science has come with a cultural price: Most people don't know much about how food grows now and that has made it easy for urban elites and groups like Environmental Working Group and Whole Foods to scare the public with falsehoods about modern agriculture. They imply that the modern population would be sustainable without genetics or pesticides, and therefore science is dangerous, unnecessary experimentation. They can get away with this because most of their donors have never worked on a farm. It is now possible for even the poorest people in America to never have to worry about food, and that is due to terrific advances in chemistry and, more recently, biology. But to urban dwellers it has always been that way.
Farmers know that is not so, but the stoic farmer farmer of today is much like the stoic scientist - neither likes the idea of self-promotion. Since farmers and scientists tend to be modest and quiet, the discourse about their work is instead framed by well-funded detractors. So when agenda-driven groups like Natural Resources Defense Council and Pew Charitable Trusts abused Freedom of Information Act requests to demand personal information on farmers so they could distribute this information to their political sympathizers, it got very little mainstream media attention.
It should have, and it would have if we were more connected to our farms beyond sentimental "farm to fork" platitudes. Who among us would want our names, addresses and phone numbers given out to eco-terrorists like Earth Justice? Yet the courts said it had no way to force the EPA to demand return of the personal addresses and phone numbers of farm employees until someone was actually assaulted.
Why did we abandon farmers and ranchers so casually? Food is no longer a luxury and so we take it for granted. Ranch hands can't afford to buy full-page ads in the New York Times the way that well-funded anti-science groups with hundreds of millions of dollars do. So when it comes to issues like pesticides and GMOs, Manhattan journalists can either side with groups like Union of Concerned Scientists and throw together an article with weasel terms like "suggests", "linked to" and "studies" about suspect animal models of pesticides or GMOs, or they can struggle to understand real science.
Given the mindset of most journalists, and the complexity of science, it is easy to understand why journalists take the easy road and just repeat the scary narrative promoted so aggressively. And then there is the audience. Not many farmers read the New York Times and it's the environmental groups buying the full-page ads.
Occasionally I give talks on science outreach, and I am giving another one in Hawaii in October and then in Manhattan a few weeks later. The gist is often the same: "Science is on our side" is not very convincing to the public because science has been on the wrong side of things plenty of times. The progressives who instituted eugenics and forced sterilization almost a hundred years ago were a Who's Who of educated elites, and they were very pro-science. They were also completely wrong.
Had the argument been about values instead - American values or ethical values or almost any value - those crimes against the mentally disabled and victims of sexual assault would not have occurred.
Food is more than a science issue, it is a values issue, because we can't opt out of food the way we can opt out of thinking about dark matter or buying a can. We have to keep this in mind when we are addressing the concerns of people who are not simply anti-science, they just need a group to be trusted guides for complex issues.