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Farmers vs Scientists: When Belief and Fact are Blurred

Nov 12, 2014 02:59 PM EST

The general consensus is that the climate change dispute is over, with the majority of the scientific community and the public at least agreeing that it is occurring. However, new research has revealed that the agricultural community's stance on the issue remains a bit more undecided - highlighting a division between scientists and farmers that may have a lot to do with perspective and belief.

In a survey of nearly 7,000 experts in the agricultural sector between 2011 and 2012, researchers from Perdue University found that more than 90 percent of the scientists and climatologists surveyed believe that climate change was occurring. More than half of that percentile also agreed that the change the globe is currently experiencing was triggered primarily by human activities.

However, of the corn farmers interviewed in this survey from the agricultural sector, only 66 percent said they were certain climate change was a reality, while the majority of the remaining farmers said they couldn't be sure. Less than a mere three percent of these individuals stood by the claim that climate change is NOT occurring.

Stunningly, only eight percent of these farmers blamed human activity - nearly a quarter of these experienced individuals think climate change is mostly a natural process. The remaining farmers were either uncertain, or blamed nature and humanity equally.

It's important to note that, contrary to some popular belief, modern farmers are not uneducated yokels. Some industries even require extensive knowledge of chemistry, biology and geology - knowledge obtained through extensive schooling, field work, and apprenticeships. (Scroll to read on...)

So why don't farmers and scientists see eye-to eye? According to Lois Wright Morton, a sociology expert at Iowa State University, it's not an issue of intelligence, but rather an issue of perspective.

"Farmers are problem solvers," she explained in a statement. "A majority of farmers view excess water on their land (from flooding) and variable weather as problems and are willing to adapt their practices to protect their farm operation."

In this way, they see climate change less as a dooming consequence of humanity's sins, and more of just another bridge to cross - the same kind of 'bridge' that nature has been hurling at them for generations.

Speaking on her analysis of the 2011/2012 surveys, Morton adds that scientists, only seeing the big picture of net climate data, are looking too far ahead and ignoring beliefs that could otherwise be giving them common ground to open a dialogue with farmers.

Facts, Belief, and Loyalty to a Cause

"Differences in beliefs are related to a variety of factors, such as personal experiences, cultural and social influences, and perceptions of risk and vulnerability," Morton explained.

And "belief" is an important word in agricultural communities.

No, we're not talking about religion or God, but belief and expert perspective have been seen to go hand-in-hand before.

A study published this month in the Journal of Marketing even suggests that belief, more than fact, is what primarily drives the organic farming industry, causing some farmers to resist profitable change. (Scroll to read on...)

Much like with the suspected causes of climate change, the effectiveness and benefits of organic farming have long been in dispute. However, in an age where there is heavy suspicion of GMO and chemically treated crops, many organic farms have started making more money than their traditional counterparts.

According to the study, this seems "wrong" to conventional chemical farmers, who are aware that the science is still out on organic alternatives for pests and herbicides. Even so, the facts are that organic farming can be more profitable with less of an adverse impact on the environment.

So why don't they switch? The researchers found both organic and chemical farmers are often driven by passionate near-spiritual reasoning for their farming strategies and will view new facts through the lens of those beliefs.

One chemical farmer even stated that he felt organic farmers were "unscientific" and that they probably followed "an organic crop guru."

Another organic farmer, by contrast, spoke of visible and natural life more than harvest constancy or yield.

"I had thousands of seagulls, but my chemical neighbor did not have one. Why was this? Earthworms," he said. "My soil is getting healthier because I'm not putting all the herbicides and pesticides out there."

Study author Melea Press said in a statement that when it comes to disputed issues like this, "managers might have greater success if they recognize that potentially conflicting ideologies are in play," especially when "the preservation of the agricultural world is at stake."

Focus on the Fix

And that really reflects Morton's point, where, if scientists really want to prevent the potentially damaging effects of climate change, they have to convince farmers to look ahead. (Scroll to read on...)

According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change has already lead to global crop yields decreasing by a net average of four to five percent annually, with that drop expected to worsen as change continues.

At the same time, water efficiency may actually increase thanks to spikes in carbon dioxide.

To address these changes, adaptation is needed, but a great deal of the current climate change dialogue focuses around the cause and pointing fingers. Morton and her colleagues argue that this kind of discussion will polarize the issue, dooming it to the same standoff that organic farming has seen.

"Farmers are by necessity very focused on short-term weather, in-season decisions and managing immediate risks," she said. "They're thinking about when they can get in their field to do what they need to do, rather than looking 20 to 30 years down the road... Initiating conversations about adaptive management is more effective than talking about the causes."

Thus, finding a way to make necessary adaptation attractive and safe in the short run is the best strategy.

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