Does Science Matter to Farmers?

We’re finding ourselves at a hostile crossroads, even within the farming community. “Science Matters” is a weapon to counter “other farmers.” However, personally, we might be uncomfortable accepting all of the findings of science because it might challenge our livelihoods or weaken our positions.

What we’re really seeing is a lack of empathy to try to understand the pieces in a system that we think is against our best interest to acknowledge. As a society, we should be embracing science and truth as a way to advance and realize that truth is a lot more complex. Let’s start with a few statements to test our comfort level:


  1. GMOs are safe to eat.
  2. Organics produce some positive environmental effects.
  3. GMOs produce some positive environmental effects.
  4. Organics produce some negative environmental consequences.
  5. GMOs produce some negative environmental consequences.
  6. Climate change is real.
  7. Some environmental regulations are counter-productive.
  8. Big farms and small farms have upsides and downsides.
  9. Some agricultural areas are running out of water fast.
  10. Carbon footprints need acknowledgement, research, and reduction.
  11. Agricultural runoff causes dead zones and algal blooms.
  12. Diversity of crops and methods is insurance against catastrophe.
  13. Prairies require grazers.
  14. Scientific methodologies and assumptions need challenging.
  15. One-size-fits-all solutions to complex problems are not optimal.


While we might agree on all of these, we might place different weight and importance on each to the point where we’re not acknowledging some of the other points.


Lessons from Waters of the U.S.

Let’s take Waters of the US as an example. This rule has caught the attention of both environmentalists and ranchers, seemingly pitted against one another. Unfortunately, each side has not taken the time to appreciate the others’ positions and offer a better policy.  On one side, agricultural runoff is a real problem, killing huge swaths of the Gulf of Mexico, for example. The fishing industry suffers in addition to the environmental degradation.

On the other side, farmers and ranchers see themselves as good stewards of the land. Ranchers, especially, who are care-taking the land in accordance with the prairies that require grazers, would not understand why many of the watering holes on their own property would be covered by such a far-reaching rule. Did the policymakers see these ditches and ponds themselves and spoken with ranchers? Did they realize how this rule would seem like inflated overreaching government regulation to people that are living proudly and independently? Both sides still have a lot to learn from each other.


Communication is Key

What can we learn here on how to tackle problems in the future? Alan Alda, the beloved actor, has some great insight here. His new book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? explores the pitfalls in scientific communication to the rest of us. He even founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science to train science professionals how to communicate better. The scientists and policymakers need to make their case better that what looks like a ditch is actually a critical part of regional water systems.

But a lack of communication skills is not the only problem. Scientists and policymakers need a more attuned interest in and investigation and engagement of the rest of us. A hydrologist may better communicate how the ditch on our land is connected to the overall hydrologic system. It’s hard to imagine that the ditch water eventually runs into the ocean and causes havoc.

At the same time, the hydrologist and policymakers must realize that ditch is located in more systems than hydrologic systems. The ditch is also part of a property rights system, a drinking pond system, and a local fishing system (among others). We as farmers, ranchers, landowners, need to engage better about our land to have the opportunity to ask questions. If the scientists and policymakers knew how opposed we would be to regulations that clearly seem like overreach, maybe they would try for something more attainable, and ultimately, effective. Or maybe they need to tell us better what the ecological concern is. 


What’s clear is that it is time to go back to the drawing board to uncover more of the systems involved in the policy. Better communication, better science, better understanding, and a dive into empathy will help move diverging viewpoints together.


– Amy Sprague, Founder, FARMIST