So many differing views on agriculture, so many 'blind spots'

Columnist Jonathan Knutson suggests readers consider those topics they avoid and hear from those people they often avoid to open up to different ways of thinking.

A human hand picks up rich soil.
Columnist Jonathan Knutson suggests there are often widely differing views about how to farm. Both should be heard and considered against the positives and negatives.
Agri-Pulse Communications photo

So many people have differing views on U.S. agriculture. The views vary so much, and often so heatedly, that sometimes I shake my head in dismay and wonder if we all live on the same planet. Environmental considerations clearly account for much of the disagreement.

Full disclosure: I consider myself a middle-of-the-road agriculturalist who favors free trade, sound science, a minimum of regulation, and meaningful short- and long-term conservation practices — a combination that gives producers a fighting chance to stay in business. And though I'm mainstream, I'm pleased when organic farmers meet consumer demand and support themselves financially.

Most area agriculturalists I've met over five decades would fit pretty well into my self-description. Oh, some have problems with free trade. A few have been known to cut corners on good conservation practices to save money when times are tough. (In their place, I might, too.) And a curse-them-to-damnation handful maximize short-term profit by ignoring sound conservation on rented land. On balance, though, most area agriculturists are doing a good job.

But mainstream ag isn't perfect, and those of us in it have blind spots. " Dead zones " is an egregious example. Put simply, they're low-oxygen areas in the world's oceans and lakes in which few organisms can survive. Dead zones are created when too many nutrients such as nitrogen, a crucial crop nutrient, enter the water, primarily from fields, yards and golf courses. To be sure, nutrients from fields raise yields, improve profits and help to feed hungry people, but dead zones are a serious problem nonetheless.

I know of dead zones only because an organic group leader once lectured me on this important topic. I've never heard a mainstream agriculturalist talk about them: a blind spot.


Another 'blind spot'

But environmentalists have their own blind spots. I visited once with an ardent environmentalist/GMO opponent; it wasn't an interview or for a story, so I spoke more freely than I normally would. She stressed that Americans in general don't eat enough fruit and vegetables and enthusiastically explained her vision: Midwest farmers converting huge tracts of corn, wheat and soybeans to fruit and vegetables, mentioning squash and apples among others.

I said she was certainly right about Americans' diets overall having too little fruits and veggies. And I mentioned that personally I'm a big fan of squash and apples, even planting multiple squash plants in my own little garden and planting apple trees on my family's farm.

But I also said that I just didn't see how converting huge amounts of cropland, as she envisioned, would be practical. The logistics would be highly difficult at best, and the results, even if partially achieved, would probably leave a whole lot of rotting squash and apples.

No, she insisted, her ideas would benefit farmers, consumers and the environment.

No ridicule from me, then, now or ever. She struck me as a good caring person — but with a major blind spot.

The goal, it seems to me, should be for all of us to limit our blind spots. We do that by reading things we normally avoid. By listening to people we normally avoid. By realizing that our view of how the universe functions is incomplete and imperfect. By broadening our knowledge and perspective without sacrificing our core beliefs.

The effort wouldn't be great, but the gains might be. Good luck to all of us, whatever our existing views.
Jonathan Knutson is a former Agweek reporter. He grew up on a farm and spent his career covering agriculture. He can be reached at

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