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?

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.

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