Thursday, June 9, 2011

Book's I'm reading: Tomorrow's Table

Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food has been on my 'must read' list for quite a while now. But with all the work I do in agriculture every day, and 10+ years working in the industry, I wasn't sure what I could really expect to learn from another book on agriculture technology and the policy debates that surround it.

Boy, do I have a lot to learn!

Tomorrow's Table is co-authored by Pamela Ronald, an articulate and accomplished plant scientist and professor at the University of California-Davis, and Raoul Adamchak, an equally articulate and accomplished organic farmer in California. They happen to be married, and together have produced a very personal and fascinating primer on the technologies and issues at play in agriculture these days.

Here are a few of the things I appreciated about it:
  • I love the book's basic approach of explaining new agriculture technologies by describing historic and current agriculture technologies and practices first. For people who don't have a good practical understanding of how agriculture works today, new technologies seem exotic and overly complicated. It's important to know just how complex agriculture has become, and why. The descriptions of farming practices, agriculture businesses of all kinds, and technologies are among the best I've ever read.
  • The chapters are all structured around real-life experiences of the authors in their work and at home. For example, the chapter "Who owns the seed?" begins with Adamchak eagerly thumbing through a new seed catalog. As he describes the different characteristics and costs of the seeds, we learn how new varieties are developed, how 'heirloom' varieties are preserved, the use of hybrids and the pluses and minuses of each from the perspective of someone who actually grows them. Building on this context and understanding, Ronald writes the following chapter, "Who owns the genes?" These episodes in each chapter are perfect examples of what I call 'seed stories' -- that begin in familiar and concrete experiences and then illuminate the much more complex issues behind them.
  • I also appreciated the fact that the book is written from the perspectives of a university-based scientist and a farmer. It doesn't represent the pro-technology agenda, or an anti-corporate mindset, nor is it a dry a policy treatise. Since I left the corporate world three years ago, I have come to really value and appreciate the different ways that there are to talk about agriculture science and technology -- particularly those that thread a narrow but distinct and important path between louder proponents and opponents.
  • Finally, throughout the book there are engaging descriptions of conversations that the two authors have with students, colleagues and family members. These discussions are sometimes difficult, particularly among those with different opinions or beliefs about agriculture. But they are always respectful and seem to always end with everyone gaining a new insight. I admire the authors' open willingness to have these talks, and I wish all my conversations about agriculture technology could be this way!
I've already been recommending this book to colleagues -- and I'll probably even buy a few copies for friends and family. Check it out!

Friday, May 20, 2011

I wish I knew about this 5 days ago!

The "Live below the Line" campaign got started on Monday -- if only I'd known I would have joined from here in Singapore!

From this Monday, May 16 – Friday, May 20, a bunch of people across the US, Australia & the UK have been spending no more than US$1.50 per day on food and drink, to better understand and raise awareness about the challenges of those living in extreme poverty.

By the way, that's one-fourth of the people we share the planet with: 1.4 billion people!

What's most interesting to me is reading about the stories and experiences of my fellow Americans as they're going through the week. Many are complaining of hunger, and counting the weight that they've lost. The descriptions of meals of ramen noodles, rice, beans, oatmeal and eggs are a bit desperate in tone. Some are trying to add more nutritionally-balanced foods into the week, but it's hard when you only have $7.50.

This is what it's like to use the money you have available for food on things that will fill you up the most. This is how you avoid starvation but still lack the nutrients to thrive, to flourish, or to live a fully vibrant life. This is why rising food prices around the world hit the poorest the hardest.

What I love about this campaign (and I will join in next year, if not earlier) is that it makes these struggles very concrete and real for those of us who are used to spending $7.50 for a latte and brownie on a Friday afternoon.

PS: This is also why we need diverse, abundant and healthy agriculture to help end poverty!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A metaphor too far...

Check out this excellent column in Nature News that I'll be thinking about for a long time.

The Nature News column describes new research showing just how much influence metaphors have on our reasoning and opinions -- often without us even realizing it. When crime is described to people as 'a beast', they want strong enforcement. When it is called 'a virus' in society, they favor prevention and rehabilitation measures.

The writer worries that the use of metaphors to help describe scientific findings, theories and new technologies can be misleading, and too easily used for political purposes. They can also be difficult to dislodge when science moves on, as it always does.

"Metaphors....tend to stick," he says. In fact, Simplicity is the first principle of good communications advocated by my gurus, Chip & Dan Heath, in their must-read book Made to Stick. Metaphors and analogies are sticky because they substitute something easy to think about for something difficult.

Still, metaphors shouldn't be chosen lightly. As a communicator, I want to encourage the agriculture scientists that I work with to use words and concepts that people will understand, to "explain what is going on as clearly and honestly as we can," just as the columnist recommends.