Deb Stinner (left), an organic farming researcher, and Francis Fluharty, an animal scientist, put rhetoric aside to take a critical look at food issues.

Ecology of Thought

Years ago, it would be unlikely to find them in the same room.

Today, researchers Francis Fluharty and Deb Stinner both laugh at that thought.

It was nothing personal back then. It was just the culture in which many scholars on the front lines of food found themselves. Some sentiment was asking them to believe the other was too simple in how they saw the connections between people, the land and the act of eating.

But, with time, that notion was unbelievable.

Now, a conversation with two Ohio agriculture experts offers insight for anyone with questions about the food they eat and how it gets to their table.

Fluharty, an animal scientist at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, an arm of Ohio State University, slid a stack of papers across the table. It is his recent presentation on global food demands. By the end, he has preemptively responded to the inevitable question:

“Are you just a proponent of ‘Big Ag?’ ”

Then there’s Stinner, who recently retired from the university, where she led the organic farming research program. She starts with her own clarification:

“I’m not one who says the whole world should be organic.”

Why the voluntary disclaimers?

The current rhetoric surrounding food production would suggest Stinner, who has pursued alternatives to conventional farming methods, is a rigid idealist. In reality, she is keenly focused on good science.

And Fluharty, the presumed backer of “Big Ag,” expounds on the fresh flavor that can be found only in a locally grown tomato.

“At this point in my life, I’m all about building bridges,” Stinner said.

Adds Fluharty, “Everybody is concerned about the environment, everybody is concerned about the sustainability of their own farm.”

But this common starting point does not resolve their differences, and for the better.

For instance, Fluharty cited research that offers the contrary notion that grass-fed beef results in more greenhouse gas emissions than corn-fed beef.

Stinner quickly jumps in with questions: “Does that include…” and “Did you consider…”

Intrigued and skeptical, she finally says, “I’d like to see the data.”

And when Stinner notes that farms with large numbers of animals present ecological challenges, Fluharty adds that the employment of veterinarians and nutritionists, animal welfare plans and regulatory oversight reduces those concerns.

And, yes, synthetic fertilizers have helped produce vast quantities of food, Stinner said, but don’t overlook the contribution that organic agriculture is making to improve the soil.

This ongoing back and forth has all the potential for a heated debate. But it is something different.

In fact, it fittingly models the basic principles of a healthy ecology: relationships, diversity and feedback. In nature, the ideal is resilience. Here, it is food security.

“We’ve got to get away from the game that one type of food production is ethically or morally superior,” Fluharty said.

But going over numbers and data only takes us halfway. Certainly, the relationship between farmer and eater is not merely an exchange of calories for cash or inputs for outputs. It also includes what Stinner describes as the “culture of food.”

So instead of thinking within the context of “feeding the world,” she prefers to consider how people within a community choose to use resources to meet their needs.

“We’re lucky in Ohio,” Fluharty said. “We’re not just corn and soybeans and no population. That’s the beauty—that we’re not a monoculture.”

All considered, there are still some sobering realities. The world population is growing and without advances in science and technology, more land will likely be brought into agricultural production, according to Fluharty.

“There are huge environmental costs to doing that,” he said, noting the potential loss of biodiversity in places such as South America, where there is the most available land.

The question before researchers now is the nature of those scientific advances and how they are applied.

“In 50 years, my dream is we’re going to have so much better information to provide farmers,” Stinner said.

And it may not be a singular solution, but, as she put it, “a tapestry of many different approaches.”