Is the Customer Always Right?

My Generation

The vocal minority wants GMO crops gone. But if they don't understand science? Biotechnology? Regulatory process? Do they still get to make the rules?

Published on: July 18, 2013

At last month's Food Dialogues (recap here and here), North Carolina farmer Bo Stone told the story of a group of non-ag folks visiting his farm. They'd finished the tour and were about to leave when one individual looked at him and said, "Ok. Now, I think I understand this: the white eggs come from the hens, and the brown eggs come from the roosters. Right?"

Uh. No.

The story drew a laugh from the largely agricultural crowd, as it has each time I've shared it with farm audiences since then.

But seriously. Biology 101, anyone? Life Sciences? Anatomy? Any science course, whatsoever, ever? This is but one example of consumers lacking basic scientific knowledge, as it applies to agriculture and biotechnology. And why do they not know this? It's not like we're talking about many pounds of N, P and K to apply or something. We're talking basic reproduction. Is it because they didn't have a good scientific background in school? Or because they haven't learned to think critically about what they've learned?

I read a piece written by a chemist not so long ago, which of course I can't find right now, and I realized agriculture has a kinship to scientists: we are largely misunderstood, and by a populace that really thinks they understand. Or rather, they get their information from authors and marketers and conclude it's gospel.

But enough about the downfall of our society.

For years, conventional wisdom regarding customer service (and marketing) has held that the customer is always right. It sounds great, especially if you're the customer. For years, we have written in the agricultural press that we need to listen to our customers. Produce what they want. Niche crops? Grow them. (For a premium) Happy pork? Raise it. (For a premium)

Absolutely. It's a philosophy that makes a lot of sense. Right up until you throw science and biotechnology into the mix. Which led me to wonder, as I sat during the Food Dialogues, is the customer always right? When they think brown eggs come from roosters, and when they describe biotechnology crops as the following: "A seed that's genetically mutated has been injected with an obvious chemical to purpose the fruit to basically add whatever trait that isn't natural," and when, in short, they really don't have a clear understanding of biotechnology, research, scientific study and rigorous testing, should they be given the opportunity to decide whether GMOs are allowed in America or not?

I would like to think cooler heads would prevail. That, given the continuing world population climb and the pressures on everything from fertilizer to water supplies, common sense will prevail and production agriculture will be allowed to continue doing what it does best: innovating, increasing efficiency, producing more food on less land, and growing the most crops in the parts of the world best suited for it. (There's a reason why it's called the Corn Belt, folks.)

But then I think back to our trip to Sweden, where we learned much about that country's commitment to food and agriculture, to sustainable production, to humanely raised meat. It all sounded really, really good. Right up until I talked to farmers and ag journalists. As it turns out, when Sweden decided it would mandate very stringent animal care regulations, many livestock producers decided it wasn't worth it. They couldn't make a profit and left the business. Today, Sweden imports a large percentage of its meat from Denmark, where it's raised by farmers who aren’t held to the same high standards Sweden holds its own farmers. Sustainable? I can't imagine so.

Sweden's meat model shows it is possible to follow this rabbit trail to a un-sustainable future. It's the scenario many agriculturalists conjure when we consider raising crops in non-biotech world. Less production, less efficiency, fewer bushels, more crop loss.

The American farmer feeds 155 people today, compared to 26 in 1960. It takes half as much land to feed a single person today, compared to 45 years ago. Much of that occurs with thanks to biotechnology.

Are we willing to give that up? Should we be willing to give that up? Is the customer – who may not understand what a peer-reviewed study actually is – always right?