We Can’t Afford Simplistic, Binary Thinking When It Comes to Food Production

Jul 9, 2018 10:00 AM ET

We Can’t Afford Simplistic, Binary Thinking When It Comes to Food Production

As head of R&D for a major vegetable seed company, I get to travel around the world to meet with farmers and many other veggie-loving stakeholders from across the food chain. Thanks to events hosted by our seed brands, De Ruiter and Seminis, I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with vegetable suppliers, grocery retailers, restaurateurs, renowned chefs, food writers/bloggers, and other stakeholders. I have also had wonderful opportunities to speak at many culinary or “foodie” events.

It is always an honor to represent our scientific researchers, our company, and in many cases, the agricultural production end of the food chain at these events. Over the past few years, however, I have increasingly encountered a disturbing element in many of my interactions: a simplistic model of binary thinking that limits our thinking about food and agriculture.

We Can’t Afford Binary Thinking in Agriculture

Too often, I hear food production methods defined as “either/or”: right/wrong, good/bad, positive/negative. After all, simple definitions make it easier to create simple food packaging labels and marketing buzzwords. For example, words like “small,” “local,” “family-owned,” “organic,” “natural,” and “traditional” are often associated with sustainable agriculture in consumers’ minds – and in many cases, they’re correct. But this binary thought model leads people to believe that if a farm’s products fit in one or more of those categories then they must be good, and if they don’t carry any of those labels, then they can’t be. Furthermore, any opposing descriptions (e.g., large, corporate, biotech/genetically modified, high-tech) end up on the “wrong/bad/negative” side of that either/or equation – basically adding up to “less sustainable” in consumers’ minds.

"Would it matter if consumers knew that nearly 96% of U.S. farms are still family-owned – and that many of them are very large? If they understood there is no such thing as “natural” in agriculture and all modern crops have been significantly modified from their ancestral parents through plant breeding? Or if they realized that, like in any other industry, farmers depend on corporations to provide the tools and technology they need to be successful – without the agriculture companies that produce good seeds, fertilizers, crop protection tools and farm equipment, we would all be feeling some serious hunger pains!"

Our vegetable business serves grower customers who are small, large, organic, conventional, biotech, low-tech, high-tech, open-field, protected-environment, etc. – and they are all positively contributing to our very diverse food ecosystem in a variety of sustainable ways. I have visited farms in over 35 countries and have seen some amazing operations. I’d like to share a few examples that will hopefully debunk the myths that large or technologically-advanced farm operations can’t be sustainable.

Big Can be Sustainable

Let’s start with Staples Vegetables Ltd. in the United Kingdom. Staples farms over 24,000 acres, making it one of the largest producers of Brassica crops (e.g., broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc.) in that major Brassica production country. The company also has an amazing track record of sustainable practices. For example, they take the post-harvest biomass from their production fields, along with some energy-dedicated crops, to provide input for a 7.4 MW biogas plant. This allows them to be 100% self-sufficient in green electricity while also generating heat, refrigeration and fertilizer for their operations. They also employ sophisticated fill reservoirs and water distribution infrastructure to manage water effectively. Electricity, water, CO2, heating and cooling are all part of the equation – what definition of sustainability would this not fit?

It Doesn’t Have to be Local or Family-Owned to be Sustainable

Local production is also often viewed as the best option for sustainable agriculture, but it’s definitely not the only answer. Just look at the example of Bolthouse Farms based in Bakersfield, California. You may know them from their carrots, salad dressings, and beverages that are sold not just locally, but nationwide. However, the size and scope of their operations has allowed them to make the investments necessary to meet impressive sustainability goals. For example, you might think that baby carrots would lead to food waste, but Bolthouse Farms has designed a process to use every bit of each carrot. The carrots are cut and peeled into baby carrots, but also shaped into chips or juiced into beverages. Even the tops are used to fertilize their fields. This approach creates less waste than when production was predominantly designed to sell only whole carrots. You can learn more about Bolthouse Farms’ sustainability efforts through the annual Corporate Responsibility Report issued by Bolthouse Farms’ parent company, Campbell Soup Company.  

It’s Time to Stop Romanticizing

In addition, some people equate only “traditional” agricultural methods with sustainability; thus, production in high-tech protected culture environments may not measure up in their minds. A closer look at a company like Houweling’s Group, with operations in the U.S. and Canada, should dispel that myth. Houweling’s uses high-tech greenhouses to grow world-class tomatoes and cucumbers. It’s sustainability initiatives include energy investments such as solar power and heat-and-power cogeneration capability that captures traditionally wasted heat, water and C02 for use within the greenhouses. Another major advantage of high-technology operations is the yield gains, which reduces the land required to grow the same amount of produce. Houweling’s estimates that their greenhouses produce 24 times the amount of tomatoes as traditional open-field production! It’s hard to think of a more tangible example of reducing agriculture’s impact on the environment.

We are all prone to making quick judgments and love food labels that help us do that. But I hope these examples will give you pause before deciding what agricultural sustainability means based merely on marketing buzzwords. As we face a rapidly rising global population, less available land for farming, and tremendous environmental pressures, we can’t afford simplistic, binary thinking about food production. Let’s support all types of agriculture and respect the men and women who dedicate their lives to putting food on our tables, regardless of the production systems they choose to employ.