John Purcell is vice president and global research and development lead for Monsanto. ( Photo courtesy Monsanto )

As head of vegetable research and development for Monsanto, I get to meet with stakeholders from across the food value chain. 

Unfortunately, in many of my interactions with those at the end of the chain, I have encountered a disturbing element: a simplistic model of binary thinking that limits our thinking about food and agriculture. 

For example, words like “small,” “local” and “organic” are often associated with sustainable agriculture in consumers’ minds. 

But this binary thought model leads people to believe that if a farm’s products fit in one or more of those categories then they must be good, and if they don’t, they can’t be. 

Furthermore, any opposing descriptions like “big” or “high-tech” end up on the “bad” side of that equation — basically adding up to “less sustainable” in consumers’ minds. 

Our vegetable seed brands serve customers who are small, large, organic, conventional, low-tech, high-tech, etc. — and they are all helping to break through this binary thinking in a variety of sustainable ways.

Staples Vegetables Ltd. farms over 24,000 acres, making it one of the largest producers of brassica crops in the United Kingdom, with great approaches to sustainable production. They take the post-harvest biomass from their production fields, along with some energy-dedicated crops, to provide input for a 7.4-megawatt biogas plant. 

This allows them to be 100% self-sufficient in green electricity while also generating heat, refrigeration and fertilizer for their operations. They also employ sophisticated fill reservoirs and water distribution infrastructure to manage water effectively. 

The size and scope of Bolthouse Farms has allowed them to make the investments necessary to meet impressive sustainability goals. 

For example, Bolthouse Farms has designed a process to use every bit of each carrot, ultimately reducing waste. The carrots are cut and peeled into baby carrots, but also shaped into chips or juiced into beverages. Even the tops are used to fertilize their fields. 

A closer look at a company like Houweling’s Group dispels the myth that high-tech is not sustainable. Houweling’s uses high-tech greenhouses to grow world-class tomatoes and cucumbers

Its sustainability initiatives include energy investments such as solar power and heat-and-power cogeneration capability that captures traditionally wasted heat, water and carbon dioxide for use within the greenhouses. 

Another major advantage of high-technology operations is the yield gains, which reduces the land required to grow the same amount of produce. 

Houweling’s estimates that their greenhouses produce 24 times the amount of tomatoes as traditional open-field production.

As we face a rapidly rising global population, less available land for farming and tremendous environmental pressures, we can’t afford simplistic, binary thinking about food production. That’s why now’s the time for our industry to debunk the myths with great examples like these. 

John Purcell is vice president and global research and development lead for Monsanto.

Submitted by Dylan Gillis on Sat, 05/19/2018 - 13:07

This strikes me as cherry picking a few anecdotal cases to bolster a generalized proposition. Definitely, one cannot say all big or high tech farms are bad or all small, organic or local (by the way local equals small and small equals local, because of market realities and the infrastructures-sales, distribution, storage- that support the marketplace) are good. But you can say, generally that large scale farms based on artificial technology (combustion engines, chemical fertilizers, pesticides all the way to CAFO's, GMO's, global transportation networks) have moved us away from the better (healthier, more environmentally and ecologically sound, community building and nurturing) results of small scale/local and organic farms of the past (all farms until the early 1900's would be considered organic by today's standards).

Of course, I imagine you have a different definition of 'good' and 'bad'. But you are being disingenuous by not acknowledging that that in fact is the disparity in opinion you address.

If, in fact you define 'good' as slowing down or reversing climate change, species extinctions, toxic contamination in our air, water and soil/food, or the economic and social decline and breakdown of rural communities, lifestyles and health, then your argument doesn't hold much water.

Submitted by AP Lewis on Mon, 05/21/2018 - 06:57

C’mon Packer. You just wasted my time.