Talking Ag Science

I just finished attending a two day workshop with Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association. In the past five years I’ve gone to a number of alternative agriculture functions, and I am always interested by the claims made and the evidence offered to support them. I’ve gone to lectures in which I’ve bought most of what I’ve heard, others in which I’ve bought none, and some in which the presenter was so manic that I couldn’t tell whether I agreed with him or not. Usually there’s something useful to learn.

This was a very good workshop, and I believe in the mission of the BFA strongly enough that I am going to become a member. That said, I was interested to notice the range of my responses to the various points of emphasis. The bulk of the presentation concerned soil mineralization and cycling, and while I was already conversant in some of the material, it was wonderful to hear a synthesis of how various minerals interact in the context of a productive agricultural system. But towards the end of today’s program Dan took the conversation in a decidedly philosophical direction.

I am uncomfortable just thinking about writing the next couple paragraphs, because I very much value Dan’s willingness to openly discuss views that run counter to the mainstream and to do so in the spirit of honest inquiry. My desire is not to belittle or invalidate anyone’s opinion. At the same time, one of my reasons for writing this blog is to participate in the conversation about what agriculture will look like in the coming years, and the role of science - and what is considered science - is a critical topic.

There is a woeful lack of good science in many areas of agronomy. It is terribly sad that there has been so little follow up at the major research schools to the work of William Albrecht, and I suspect this is in large part because there are no companies with a particular interest in funding mineralization studies. The other part, which I’ve alluded to in previous posts, is how devilishly difficult it is to conduct anything like a good experiment on a system as complicated as a farm, at least on a farm that is trying to work as a functional ecosystem.

So I recognize that often critical choices are made based on a gut feeling or intuition, though I do like some scientific context wherever possible, since I’ve learned my gut and intuition are far from infallible. When Dan gave a short, beautiful testimony about his perception of his place in the world, I found a lot to relate to - about the connection between the earth and our bodies, and about how profoundly our physical states affect our intellectual, spiritual, and emotional lives.

But then I got really wound up at the idea that these profound, even mystical ideas had scientific backing. I was dismayed at the cited authors. Dan encouraged us to do our own research, but I was already familiar with many of the names, and I do not consider most of those to be reliable sources. A foundational tenet of experimental science is that it be replicable and replicated, and KervranReich, and Emoto (whose water experiments more closely resemble conceptual art than rigorous study) do not meet this standard.

The problem, when it comes to the future of agriculture, is in grouping Albrecht or Voisin, who are doing something that meets the widely accepted definition of science, with people who are emphatically not. Cultivating credibility with the scientific community, with customers, and with other farmers, relies on a great deal of care when making truth claims. Speaking for myself, I was thrilled to find a group of farmers and growers who share my interest in soil mineralization, and I was dismayed at the truckload of beliefs that were bundled alongside it without clear distinction. Even if these or similar beliefs were held  by most everyone else in the group I was with this weekend (which I am by no means sure of), I imagine my views would be shared by a significant number of otherwise sympathetic people in the broader community.

Just as I am resistant to the impulse to categorize every part of the human experience as an inevitably materialist phenomenon, I am resistant to the idea that there must be an alternative (pseudo) scientific explanation. I take a great deal of comfort in how little I’m sure of. I want to make decisions on my farm based on data, both that generated by studies that reasonably approximate conditions on my farm and that I’ve accumulated in previous years. I want to base them on my own experience and the experience of others. I want to follow my gut. But most of all I want to honestly acknowledge how little I know.

-Garth

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