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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

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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.

Piglets feeding.

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.

Rainbow Chard

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?

Kid: Yes.

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.

Muscadine Vine.

Image credit: Kathleen Raven

Srivastava J, Smith N, & Forno, D. (1996). Biodiversity and Agriculture: Implications for Conservation and Development. World Bank Technical Paper No. 321.
Fadiman, Clifton, Ed. (1958). Fantasia Mathematica. “Socrates and the Slave.” New York: Simon and Schuster.
Kingsbury, N. (2009). Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Pitici, M. (2008). Geometric dissections. Math Explorer’s Club at Cornell University.
Welch, R. (2002). The impact of mineral nutrients in food crops on global human health. Plant and Soil 247: 83-90.
Wheeler T, & von Braun J (2013). Climate change impacts on global food security. Science, 341 (6145): 508-13 DOI: doi: 10.1126/science.1239402



Kathleen Raven About the Author: Kathleen Raven is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her MS in Ecology with a focus on sustainable agriculture and MA in Health & Medical Journalism from the University of Georgia. Follow on Twitter @sci2mrow.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. M Tucker 5:20 pm 09/3/2013

    “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?”

    Dad jumps in, “because I need to keep this kid in food, clothing, pay for his/her medical and plan for higher education, I will plant what will make the most money for me and my family. If that means a monoculture so be it.”

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bora Zivkovic 9:25 am 09/4/2013

    @M Tucker – you hit on something important here, exactly what Kathleen was making a point of, and why this blog has been assembled and launched in the first place: it’s easy to give Socrates all the correct answers, but the real world is much messier.

    Will the Dad do monoculture if that is the best monetary reward?

    Why do some people, including some who make policy, measure everything and make personal decisions based only on money, and then assume that everyone else also makes decisions based only on money?

    Why is the system set up in such a way that monoculture may be financially most rewarding to the Dad? How did such a system arise, when and how was it set in place? Who profits from this? What are its consequences? What are the creative ways to go out and around such a system? Are there ways to reform the system?

    These and other questions regarding the complexity of the food system are exactly what the seven new bloggers on the network will be tackling. So sit back and enjoy, and continue contributing to the discussions in the comments.

    Link to this
  3. 3. M Tucker 1:39 pm 09/4/2013

    I did not post that to be snide but to illustrate what seems to be the choice of many, possibly not most and I would never say ‘everyone’, who are in the business of growing for profit (the capitalist preference) our food and fuel.

    You need to include a professional agronomist to the list. I did not see one in the list of bloggers. I apologize if I missed it.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Bora Zivkovic 1:49 pm 09/4/2013

    I did not see it as snide at all. As I noted, you hit on something important here.

    Food is a very complex issue. There are probably 20+ professions that are missing here, not just an agronomist, but I could only hire seven bloggers. Which is why I hired people with broad expertise and interests, and they are also free to have guest-bloggers in the future.

    Link to this

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