Joe Biden said it well: “We choose science over fiction.”
The former vice president and current presidential candidate was wrapping up his remarks on July 31, during the second night of Democratic debates in Detroit.
His words—in that single sentence, at least—are exactly right.
Too often, public officials make the mistake of choosing fiction over science. That’s especially true in agriculture. Whether the subject is food production, crop protection, or biotechnology, they’re vulnerable to the screaming demands of political activists rather than open to the careful thinking of scientific consensus.
I’ve seen this both in my life as an Iowa farmer and as a board member of the Iowa State University Research Park, where startup companies do everything from invest in cutting-edge seed technologies to make food for astronauts.
Voters seem to sense the disconnection between sound science and election politics. At least that’s true in Iowa, home to the first round of the 2020 presidential nominating process. A new poll from the Iowa Science Survey reveals that 74 percent of Iowans say the candidates should discuss how science and scientific research will shape their policy decisions. A whopping 87 percent believe they ought to participate in a debate about the “science-based challenges facing the United States.”
So far, none of the candidates have had much to say about any of this. Biden’s remark was helpful—it gives voice to an excellent principle—but it included no specifics. When the word “science” came up at all in the Detroit debates, it involved doom-and-gloom scenarios about climate change. “We have 12 years before we reach the horizon of catastrophe,” argued Pete Buttigieg of Indiana on July 30. “We don’t have more than 10 years to get this right,” added Beto O’Rourke of Texas.
I doubt that either of those claims is true. This is not to say that we shouldn’t confront climate change—farmers are working to adapt to the climate challenges in front of them every day.
The most significant challenge today may be basic food production. Demographic science tells us that in the decades ahead, the world will contain billions more people. We’ll have to feed them all. And we’ll have to do it on today’s agricultural land. The conclusion is simple: We’ll have to grow a lot more food on the same land, or maybe even less land.
This is where science comes in. We’ve already seen how GMOs can improve agricultural production. Once controversial, they’re now conventional—and they provide a case study in how innovation can improve the lives of both farmers and consumers by making food more abundant, affordable safe and nutritious.
A recent survey from Crestline found that few consumers worry about GMOs. “It would seem that public information campaigns touting their safety—and the lack of any conclusive evidence of adverse health effects—have had an impact on consumers,” said an analysis of the results.
Farmers embrace safe technology everyday. The more consumers learn about how much of this science goes into our work—in other words, the more they learn the truth about what we do—the more confident they become in our food supply.
So as the presidential campaign proceeds with its speeches and debates, let’s hear more about what the candidates think of the connection between science and agriculture.
Here are five questions we ought to ask the people who seek the presidency:
- Do they understand the importance of making policy decisions based on peer-reviewed science?
- Do they recognize that common-sense regulations will lead to more innovation and better food production?
- Do they accept the importance of crop protection, including the value of rules that draw from hard data rather than willful scaremongering?
- Do they know that we can grow renewable fuels in our fields—and that good policies can encourage the adoption of ethanol and biodiesel?
- Do they appreciate that healthy soils make healthy food, and that the best sustainable farming involves everything from no-till strategies to the harnessing of the power of GPS satellites to deliver precision-guided nutrients?
We should ask these questions because, as someone once said, we must choose science over fiction.
This column first appeared at The Hill.