Food writer Nathanael Johnson explores improving the first science of agriculture

A crop scientist querying in a corn field. Wikimedia

There are not many things in the world more fundamental to our lives than food. Water and air maybe. Not that long ago, in the history of humanity, we mostly ate what we stumbled across. The first fast food. But sometime around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago (it’s debated), and maybe not coincidentally about the same time the last ice age ended, humans figured out how to cultivate food rather than just chase or grub after it.

Agriculture is often referred to as the first science and, like most sciences, it’s always changing. How it should change, because of its immense impact on our health, economies and the planet, is often hotly debated.

Nathanael Johnson

Nathanael Johnson

For today’s Humanosphere podcast, we talk about food and agriculture with Nathanael Johnson, a writer for the entertaining and insightful environmental news website Grist.org. Johnson is also the author of two books, All Natural (about trying to find the best evidence-based strategy for living healthy) and Unseen City (about “the majesty of pigeons” and other surprising wonders of urban living).

It’s timely to talk about our relationship with food since Thanksgiving is at least partly – mostly for some – a celebration of food.

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Johnson, who hails from Berkeley, Calif., and was raised by ‘hippies’ (his word), believes we do need to make agriculture more environmentally friendly. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we should only consider ‘natural’ means and avoid new technologies.

For example, Johnson has written extensively about genetically modified crops (see his series called Panic Free GMOs), trying to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Most Americans every day are eating some form of genetically modified (or GMO) foodstuffs – corn or soybeans or whatever. Many European countries have banned GMO crops, and foods based on them. At least once a year, activists protest outside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its support of GM technology as one means to increase farm productivity in Africa or other developing countries. Johnson, who recently took issue with a big New York Times story that claimed GMO crops have failed to fulfill their promise, thinks we need to force ourselves to look at food and agriculture based on evidence rather than ideology. We also need to not be so rigid, he says, and recognize that food is to be enjoyed.

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Before our chat with Johnson, Humanosphere’s editor-in-chief Tom Paulson and I talk about some of the week’s bigger or more interesting stories including the many refugee crises around the world. It’s important for people to be aware that we have a massive refugee crisis worldwide and it’s not just Syria. Uganda is now on pace to perhaps become the host of the world’s largest refugee camp even as Kenya attempts to ‘downsize’ the Dadaab camp, right now the world’s largest refugee camp. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is trying to anticipate what will happen given Trump’s statements on what he intends to do about immigrants and refugees.

We also talk about a report that indicates putting more emphasis on assisting women in disasters tends to help communities recover faster and more effectively. Finally, we noted Joanne Lu’s story on the Indian government’s dramatic (and somewhat confusing) move to ‘cancel’ the value of certain denominations of the rupee. Listen in and join us as in our swim against what seems like a rising tide of isolationism. We’re all in the Humanosphere together.

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About Author

Imana Gunawan

Imana Gunawan is Humanosphere's social media manager and podcast producer. A University of Washington graduate in journalism and dance, Imana's interests include underrepresented communities, the intersection between politics and culture, global-local issues and the arts. She can be reached at @imanafg on Twitter or imana@humanosphere.org