September 3, 2013 | 4
The following is a parable grounded in science with an aim toward Socratic questioning.
It’s dinnertime somewhere. A kid pushes a small pile of sautéed broccoli to the plate’s edge and sighs wistfully. I wish the surprise dinner guest would hurry up, s/he thinks. Suddenly a man dressed in cream-colored bed sheets appears in the doorway. This must be the person! Quickly, the kid slips down from the chair and quietly makes for the opposite exit. But before s/he can squirm away, Socrates has already asked the first question.
Socrates: Good evening, I see you are still working on the broccoli. Tell me, where do humans get their nutrients from?
Kid: (pauses suspiciously at the simple question) Uh, food.
Socrates: Yes, that is correct. Now, if the same soil is used over and over again to grow, let’s say—carrots, would the soil eventually be leached of its beneficial minerals?
Kid: Yes, unless the farmer puts something back into the soil.
Socrates: Very good. You are catching on. On my way here, I passed by the blueberry bushes in your front yard. Tell me about the growing season this year.
Kid: (eyes brightening) Well! We were picking berries until late in the summer! Usually all of ‘em dry up after the Fourth of July.
Socrates: Why do you suppose the blueberries lasted through July?
Kid: The weather has been cooler—that’s for sure.
Socrates: When we collect lots of raw data on weather patterns in a area over a long time, we call this climate. Do you think climate changes affect how food is grown?
Socrates: Good, we are getting near the end. What do you think happens when a plant with good genes is crossed—in nature alone, or with technology—with a weaker plant?
Kid: The weaker plant gets some of the good genes.
Socrates: Let’s pretend that you have your own farm. It is thousands of acres. Should you plant a single species of plant on this land, or many?
Kid: I guess I’d plant different kinds of plants … but not broccoli!
Socrates: Good. Now you have proved that you know some fundamentals of agriculture and food.
Image credit: Kathleen Raven
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Kingsbury, N. (2009). Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
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