Apr 8, 2019
Dan Stone is a Washington D.C.-based writer with a passion for covering all topics related to environmental science, agriculture, and botany. Formerly a White House correspondent for Newsweek and editor of National Geographic, his work has also been featured in The Daily Beast, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, Vice, and Literary Hub. Additionally, Dan serves as an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University teaching environmental policy.
His book, The Food Explorer, is the story of K-State alumnus, David Fairchild, a late-19th-century food explorer that traveled the world as an emissary of the United States government. His mission: search for new foods that would strengthen the agricultural sector and enchant the American eater.
For more about Dan Stone and The Food Explorer, check out his website at: https://www.danielstonebooks.com/
Tales of a Food Explorer with Dan Stone
People often ask, what's for dinner? But does anyone ever ask where our dinner comes from? Or how is our dinner grown? Or even will there be something for dinner next year? As production resources are spread thinner and thinner over a growing global population? These are the kinds of questions they give us something that you.
Something to Chew On is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of global food systems. It's produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Jay Weeks PhD candidate in the Department of Agronomy. My co host is Scott Tanona, an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy who specializes in the philosophy of science. For today's interview, we have a very special guest, Dan Stone, formerly a senior reporter at Newsweek and former editor for National Geographic covering environmental science and agriculture. Dan is the author of the food explorer, a book that chronicles the adventures of K State alumnus David Fairchild, informal emissary with the United States government furchild leveraged agronomy, horticulture and botany as tools for international trade and diplomacy in an age when food diversity was limited in the United States. Oh, welcome, Dan, we appreciate you taking the time to talk with us for a little while. We're going to get a little bit into your book, and then why that's important, both to K State and Manhattan and the global food system in general. But tell us a little bit about yourself. Yeah, I'm, I'm a journalist and science writer, Live in Washington, DC and I work for, I'd write for National Geographic, I used to cover politics. I used to cover the White House. And now I cover sort of the intersection of science and policy, particularly related to agriculture, botany and the economy. So our food, what we eat, why we eat it, the economic principles at play, and the stories of history that explain sort of what are supermarkets look like, and the foods that we have the choice of, and the stories behind what we eat. What was it the sparked your interest in getting food and all that sort of thing, as opposed to politics? Yeah, I grew up in California, near farms, working on farms, I went to college, up near Sacramento, and at UC Davis, tech school, big ads. Oh, yeah. And I worked on a peach farm, I worked on a strawberry farm, and really loved the sense of research and innovation on farms, figuring out how to farm the soil, and how each season could be better than the season prior. Farming is very hard work, as anyone knows who's ever done it. But there are ways to make it better and easier or more plentiful with each passing season by using science. And we see companies do that we also see farmers do it. And I love that process. When I went to Washington, I you know, I mentioned I covered politics. But eventually I wanted to cover science again. And I wanted to cover stories that were not being covered, cover people whose stories were untold. And usually with scientific research, you know, it's stories that are really complicated. And that, you know, don't always have the most compelling or charismatic character behind them, but are really important. And if you could find these people, and you could find clever ways of telling these stories. They are usually stories that people haven't heard before. That's great, speaking of those kinds of people's and listening to stories that you found behind them. So you're here at K State talking about your book, the food Explorer, and that sort of chronicles the travels of David Fairchild and alumnus of K State. What got you interested in David Fincher, what sparked that? Yeah, I mentioned you know, my background in food and farming and policy and history. And I heard a fair child one day at National Geographic. I heard him described as a roving botanist, a man who traveled the world in search of new plants to bring back to America. And I had never heard anyone have that title, botanist, roving adventurer. And Fairchild was on the board of National Geographic and had written essays, stories for the magazine, and I read all of them. And I thought two things one, why haven't I ever heard of this guy? And why hasn't anybody heard of this guy? And I want to tell a story. I want to dig into his archives and find the story of his life and bring him to life. Interesting. So Fairchild was here and In the late 1800s, right in the late 1880s, what did their cultural landscape in the US look like? And what did he do? Why? Why was he important?
Yeah, Fairchild was here because his father was courted from Michigan State Agricultural College to become the president of Kansas State Agricultural College. And so the Fairchild took a train from Lansing, Michigan down here to Manhattan. They'd never been here before. And George Fairchild became the president and young David Fairchild became the president's son and a student here, eventually, and he was surrounded by some realities in America. But here, you know, in the center in the heartland of the country, one that a lot of people were farmers to that farmers weren't really part of the prosperity of the Gilded Age, right, like railroads did really well, the banks were really growing, Washington was feeling prosperous, and emergent. Three decades after the Civil War, but to be a farmer was hard. And you didn't really make much money. In fact, the harder you worked, the less money you made, because of your output. And this was a problem of crop diversity. There were too many farmers growing too few crops, there was corn, there were oats, there was a lot of dairy, there was barley, but not a lot of diversity, certainly not in the way we think of today, when you walk into a supermarket. So farming was a really hard equation to square in those days. And Fairchild saw it here in Manhattan, and also just, you know, everyone he knew was a farmer struggling.
How widely recognized was that as an issue? I mean, was this like a particular insight by Fairchild or were people kind of seeing this as a problem, right, sort of not being part of the prosperity of the country?
People could see it, certainly farmers could see it here and elsewhere, Washington didn't quite see it, or to the extent that they needed to, and people here were really angry, you know, they said, you know, Washington's looking out for every other industry. And yet, this American notion that if we work really hard, that will be okay, is leaving us poorer. And so yeah, it was sort of a disconnect between the federal government and the states that led to, you know, pretty fiery language people fired up and, you know, pastors and activists and people making speeches about, you know, how we were left behind here in the center of the country.
So what's Fairchild story that he like, take that passion and move with it? Or does it just sit with him for a little while.
He took that passion. And that's what sparked his sense of I need to do something to help farmers in this country, because farming is really most of the economy and by helping farmers, I can help boost this country. That was one. Another thing that happened was, in the early 1880s, Fairchild had an encounter with a visiting scientist named Alfred Russel Wallace, a research ever of natural selection and evolution. Wallace had been to the Malay islands of Indonesia and Malaysia, Malaysia, and came through Manhattan, Kansas on a speaking tour and stayed with the Fairchilds George Fairchild was the president the school. And so young Fairchild meats, Alfred Russel Wallace, this great illustrious researcher who inspires him with descriptions of the other side of the planet, and the tropics, and the plants and the animals and the foods that you could taste on the other side of the world. And that really fueled Fairchilds imagination, and eventually gave life to his vision.
I can't imagine what that'd be like. It's sort of the state where, you know, everything that you see around you, right, it's so foreign in a way from what we have today with just the availability of all kinds of foods now, right? To think of hearing about these amazing things that you have never seen. Right. And potential availability. So that, that got him out of here.
Yeah, you know, I usually like to say that meeting Alfred Russel Wallace meeting a world traveler to that extent and of that renown, was like meeting an astronaut. It was like meeting someone who walked on the moon had gone somewhere that no one else you knew had ever been. Right? Yeah, amazing. So where did Fairchild go from there? Once you he finished his degree at Cal State, correct? Yes, he did. And then what he did some, some master's work in Iowa, and then found his way to Washington, DC, where he became a junior staffer at the USDA in plant pathology, finding and researching crop diseases and how to treat them. And it was in that capacity that he got another connection and he got an opportunity to work for the Smithsonian, in Italy, and to take a boat across the ocean and research at the Smithsonian Institution in Naples. And that's fair child's first trip abroad. It's his first time on the ocean, you know, on a steamer and an encounter on that trip really defined sort of the destiny of his life he met a benefactor a man who offered him a little bit of money to pursue his travels and find new and novel plants. It must have been, must have been fascinating. So, you know, he meets this benefactor, and they start traveling around after a little bit of deliberation right in parallel wasn't exactly sure that this is where he was wanted to go. You know, obviously, we can't recapitulate the whole book here. But what are some of your favorite adventures that he goes on? Do you think we were important to our food system here in the United States? Yeah. Fairchild, and his benefactor, Barbara lay thrupp go on a tour around the Cape of South America. And they stop and she lay and Fairchild picks up varieties of avocados. Avocados are native to Mexico, but he found them a little bit further. South. Fairchild later is in Italy, and he finds varieties of seedless grapes that he introduces. On another trip he's in South Asia and all the way from India. to the Philippines. He picks up mangoes more than 50 varieties of mangoes and introduces them to subtropical land in the US, mainly in Florida, Southern California. Fairchild is responsible for kale for Egyptians cotton, he picked up varieties of watermelons, in Brazil, and of nectarines in Pakistan. He's also responsible for the cherry blossom trees that were gifted from the Japanese to Washington DC. In 1912. He arranged that exchange.
So you've written that the US government got involved in was supporting in right kind of asking him to do more of this or at some point. So it was this was this something that they had been interested in before sort of did Fairchilds adventures, kind of spark the government interest in this.
The government had always been interested in plants from abroad, because plants were economic assets. You know, before you know, the days of globalization and goods being manufactured, the way a country grew was really through plants. Thomas Jefferson, even you know, in the late 18th century said, the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to introduce a plant to its culture, right, find a new plant. And so, the work of plant introduction was really the work of the State Department. That was foreign policy. The USDA didn't exist until the 1860s with Abraham Lincoln. Before that, the USDA was just run as an Office of the State Department, and consoles and consular officers were just asked as part of their other duties to just send in plants when something interesting came along. So Fairchild came with this age old notion that foreign plants were valuable, but with a new vision of how he could streamline the process and how he could introduce these plants better and faster and more scientifically, you know, Scruton this with a greater chance of success.
So in addition to the actual plants that he brought back, what would you say were the major contribution in this way was in terms of that process, right, in terms of like, how we brought them back or how we kept them or the methodology he chose for what to try to bring back.
He really defined his success with economic growth. So if you think of the citrus growers of California, orange groves, lemon groves, great fruits grown in California, that didn't really exist as a giant commercial industry, the way we saw in the mid and late 20th century, avocados certainly are now a huge commercial industry. And the economics have shifted in labor. So now we grow and import most of our avocados from abroad in Mexico. The same is really true for cotton. Fairchild introduced a form of long grain cotton from Egypt. That then became known as Egyptian cotton, right, fine luxury cotton, right. He introduced you know, varieties of mangoes that really transformed South Florida. And he introduced the cherry blossoms from Japan that weren't really a commercial crop. There's not really any fruit to sell. But they were so beautiful that now cherry blossoms grow in almost every major American city and pretty defining in Washington. Yeah. And our giant sources of tourist and economic activity, right. Yeah. Yeah, I think the case of cotton is particularly interesting, right? Because the Egyptians were closely guarding their cotton or they didn't want it to spread widely because of its high quality. Right? Yeah, it was really what helped to derive some of some parts of the US economy when they were able to get this new variety right. What's interesting about cotton is that cotton is not from Egypt never has been and Egyptians didn't really have much experience with cotton, but around the 1850s and 60s when the civil war started in the US, and all those cotton plantations suddenly didn't have the labor that they had before, the whole cotton industry in America collapsed. And Egypt, sensing the worldwide demand for it started growing cotton, and spent about three decades growing cotton and growing better cotton. Until the 1890s and early 20th century, suddenly, Egypt was the cotton powerhouse and started selling cotton back to the US. And so it was Fairchild's introduction that really helped bridge from that high quality cotton in Egypt to make it an American crop again. It's fascinating thinking about how those your politics play out how important a simple introduction can be like that. The what were some of the big challenges that Fairchild had, and getting some of these things back into the United States. He had botanical problems and shipping problems. He also had problems of diplomacy, you know, going to a foreign country and asking them for their most prized seeds or cuttings was often you know, not easy. People were skeptical. Sometimes he was arrested, he would sometimes catch diseases, you know, this was very dangerous work. But even if he got the seeds with the cuttings or the fruit, how do you package a plant to survive on a ship for two months, or and you don't know how long it's gonna be? Yeah, it could be longer. And it could go through the tropics, it could, you know, be very hot, mold could grow very easily. And so he always experimented with shipping methods. And sometimes he would take a cutting, like of a citrus plant, and he would stick it in a potato, which was sort of moist inside, and it would nourish it for a few months. Sometimes he would take like a date tree where he goes in Baghdad, and he rolls these date suckers in mud in several layers of mud so that the inside will stay wet. And the outside will harden and keep any moisture out. He also experimented with peat moss and any type of you know, packing or growing moss or material that local farmers would suggest. Yeah, so he had those issues and getting things you know, across the oceans and whatnot. He had some issues back home, though, too, when he was trying to bring some of these plant materials in, he ran into some colleagues that thought this wasn't such a good idea. Right. So what happened there? Yeah. You know, this is a story of a man who brings in plants from all over the world. And it sounds very rosy. But it also could be very dangerous, right. And actually, there was a friend of his a young man who grew up also here in Manhattan, who was a K State alumnus named Charles Merlot, who graduated here in entomology, and he became an entomologist for the USDA and insect scientist. And His concern was, well, these plants are great, but what about the risks? What about you know, what's going to happen when we introduce a new insect or a new type of fungus that destroys an entire field or a whole industry? And so Fairchild was constantly trying to combat the idea that we shouldn't be introducing plants at all, because the risks were too great. And it wasn't worth the potential damage. So that means he has roots in the reason why we have to fill out the little slip on the airplane, and we're coming back from national flights, right? So I mean, what's it been like, since you've written the book, you know, talking to people about this? Where are people like blown away that you know, this, this kind of thing had happened? And that's how, you know, our history and food are? You know, what's the response been? It surprises a lot of people the same way, it surprised me when I first learned about this. And people generally don't think about food as traveling right? Food as immigrant, an immigrant that travels across oceans or gets introduced to a country. So you know, you go into your market, your avocados, your mangoes, your bananas, all these things were brought here. And people usually say, Wow, that I never, I never thought about that. Another reaction I get, which is always interesting is why haven't we heard of him? You know, he was so influential, and he did all these amazing things that still affect our daily lives. Why don't we know his name? And there are many reasons, but one reason is that he was a botanist, right? He was a plant scientist. And we don't usually celebrate scientists of plants, the way we do say, you know, scientists of technology or industry. He was also a government employee. So he never made a lot of money. He was never rich. He never patented his work. So when you compare him to the big names of his era, you know, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, these people who made a lot of money, you know, and we're sort of the titans of their day. Fairchild was pretty modest, and he was always traveling. He never really had newspaper profiles written about him because he was abroad. So you know, he wrote A lot of things down but he wasn't really elevated to celebrity status. The way many of his peers were.
Sounds just like the farming not getting the popularity right or the attention, right. Yeah. Was from before it's like the same thing, even though he started a whole bunch of industry off right here.
Yeah, yeah. How many? How many, you know, farmers, you know, famous farmers famous farm famous would make that a website famous farmers.com. Yeah. Or, you know, agronomist or botanists, or, you know, become sort of high level, influential figures. It's pretty small.
Yeah. One of the major lessons you think the story has for today.
That our food is an adventure, what we eat and why we eat, it has roots back usually about 100 years ago, that, you know, someone carrying it on a ship, or someone introducing it in a field and growing it into an industry. That's very perilous, right? It could go wrong at any point. And usually it did. And so our food is very geographic, in a way we don't often think there are also, you know, ecological components of this kind of work that are still present today. And even more so, you know, bringing in a new plant could introduce a new insect. And that was true, then people were worried.
Did he just get lucky?
Do you think he got pretty lucky? A lot of these things were inspected. Okay, maybe not as thoroughly. But you know, there were probably also some does that, you know, small disasters of, you know, individual fields or crops, or perhaps insects that destroyed something that we were linked to his interactions. Certainly, with the cherry blossom trees, they were introduced with six types of scale insect, and they had to be burned on the National Mall, and a second shipment of trees had to be sent. And so that was a disaster averted. But today, that's even more true. Because, you know, not only are people coming into every country, but certainly our country from every port in every city, you know, but dirt on your shoe that you brought in from China this morning, you know, could be introduced into a field in Kansas this afternoon. Same with, you know, someone coming from the US to Africa, right, introducing new types of fungus, new insects, that really are the result of a more interconnected and globalized world that could be really ecologically dangerous.
Do you have any opinions on the best policy ways to address these kinds of issues?
The quarantines are really helpful, you know, certainly filling out the form on airplanes, declaring any agricultural material, if you do declare it, and it's sort of optional. Yep. is generally good policy. Right? It's better than nothing. It's not really enough. And I don't think any government really has it figured out. Oh, and what would be I mean, some of these things are microscopic. But you could introduce, we haven't had a global, you know, food disaster yet, and certainly not in a long time. But yeah, these insects can have, you know, really devastating effects over time, right, over decades.
I mean, in some sense, this is just one of the risks that we have to deal with. Right? Yeah, the global, the global system, right, the way we're all connected.
I mean, Scott and I have talked about that before just how fragile our food system really is, even though we have this global network, right, you know, if something gets brought in that, you know, shouldn't be there could have devastating effects. But yeah, the upside is that now we have far more advanced science, and that we have researchers and microbiology labs, who can sort of solve problems. But you know, the upside to 100 years ago is that they just didn't have this constant flow of potential contamination. So, you know, the modern world comes with positives and negatives of, you know, problems we can solve and problems. We can also you know, launch, you know, create.
So, one of the good alright, so, one of the things you were saying about Fairchild at Fairchild's time the farming of the time was pretty there a few crops right. They were everybody was trying to farm right. Yeah, other lessons there today for us in terms of diversity food. I mean, some of the things people are concerned about with monocultures are different. They're not just the economic ones that we're all eating the same thing. Right. So there's more questions about sustainability and the ability to resist, you know, issues like we're just talking about here, right. Are there lessons that we can draw about diversifying our food system from Fairchild or is it a different world now?
Our food system is pretty diverse, now far more diverse than it was 150.
Partly because of Fairchild and and yeah, continuing actions like this, right?
Yeah, our farms are not as diverse. Certainly not geographically, right? Most of our fruits and vegetables are grown in California, and out west. Most of our cereals are grown in the Midwest, in the south. And there are exceptions. But that's in both cases, it's an effect of economics. In Fairchild's day, more crops lead to more money. and more economic growth in our economy today, fewer crops, but growing them on more acreage is what yields the greatest profit. You know, farming is really hard work. But it's also really risky. And if you're a farmer today, and someone comes to you with a new crop, and asked you to plant it in your field, and you've never grown up before, you know, that's a risk. Sure, and maybe it won't work out. And maybe you just rather stick with the corn or soybeans that you've got growing in your farm in Iowa.
Do you have thoughts about a general policies on this about how we can shift the economics of this, like what the food bill? And what do you want to say about that?
Generally, farming works best when, when it's not just big landowners doing it? Right? When you have individual land holders who can make individual decisions about their land. That was true. 50 years ago, we had more farmers than we do. Now. The trends are going, you know, farmers are getting older, and farms are getting bigger, as they're getting bought up by bigger and bigger companies. Generally, agricultural subsidies can be both harmful and helpful to drive some of these policy changes, to encourage farmers to grow new things, to create more ecological diversity, to reduce the risk of a disease coming through and demolishing an entire crop over a whole state or region. Yeah, but with the Farm Bill, you know, part of it's about food and part of it's about farming, and more people farming in different ways. Even if it's like kind of crazy ways, like in a skyscraper in Manhattan, right? That's not going to solve our food problem. But it is diversity in a way. So maybe this is a good time to transition, we'd like to talk a little bit more about you know, your experiences as a journalist and your title now as a contributing editor to national great writing graphic. Right. And you mentioned before the botanists and sometimes scientists and farmers don't get a lot of recognition. So you know, what do you see as the role of journalism in the media in the, you know, the environment, ag food, you know, community and that sort of thing. But you know, what do you think about that? Yeah, farming is usually a really hard story to tell, because it's really complicated. It's not always, you know, the sexiest story out there. It's really important. But you know, it's not as vivid or salacious, as, you know, stories of tension, you know, with politics or with sports or religion, right. Usually, I find the best stories about farming and food to come from people, if you can find people willing to tell those stories, someone in Kansas who has experienced, you know, a farming problem and can give voice, right, someone in Manhattan who's starting a vertical farm, right to grow lettuce, that person has a passion and a reason for doing it. And they usually are the best spokesperson for why they're doing it. Farms are, you know, dying, as we've heard, right? So farmers are getting older, and they're selling their farms to big companies. So what is it about farming? That doesn't really attract younger people? Right? What is it about? Farming that attracts mostly men? Right? These are stories about people that explain this industry in a more narrow way.
What are you trying to accomplish? When you pick a story? Just tried to like anything that would interest the reader or you. There's something you're trying to get at?
That's deep? Yeah. Here's the philosophy. Yeah. You know, I'm a storyteller at heart. Most journalists are, you know, I want to tell a good story that someone's gonna be interested in. That's, that's one. But journalism is also powerful. You can teach people things, you know, you can drive change in a way that's maybe not political change. But maybe it's, you know, like a form of ecological change, or a way we think about the planet, you can raise awareness for an issue, that's not getting it. I used to cover politics, and covered the White House, and I liked it, but I didn't really like it that much. Because, you know, 50, other reporters are sitting in that same room, trying to get their questions answered. And you're not really telling a story that's unique. But with science writing, you know, you have the potential to go out there and find something that's happening, and maybe raise a red flag about it, and maybe vocalize it in a new way. Maybe tell the story of someone who doesn't usually get their voice heard, you know, and with farmers, they don't often get hurt, you know. So I think telling the stories of the voiceless is fascinating and usually leads really great stories. So do you spend a lot of time in the field, like looking for these types of stories or finding, you know, to find people I know, in the past, you've done, you know, trips, like up to California, where you've reported every day and, you know, and sort of interesting things that you found and that sort of thing. So how do you go about, you know, finding assignment and then and then, you know, what do you do to delve into it? I usually start with trends, right. And I read a lot of reports and studies, you know, kind of really dense academic publications. about farming and food. That's where you start. Yeah, because it's, you know, those aren't the best stories, see what's happening on the ground? Sure. As opposed to just, you know, if I were to leave from DC and kind of drive here to Manhattan, Kansas, you know, I'd probably meet a lot of quirky characters along the way. And maybe I could tell a story of one of them. Sure. But if I want to tell the story about America, or how it's changing, or the economy of Kansas, or you know how climate change is affecting farms across the country, I'm probably going to see that in some changing statistic, or I'm going to see it in in a new trend that's emerging and farming equipment, or a new crop that suddenly is being imported, you know, at twice the rate that it was before, because there's a new market for it. And once you find that trend, then you could go find people who sort of embody it. And when you start talking to people, usually they recommend other people and then other people and other people. So you know, you can find those compelling and quirky characters in a much more targeted and efficient way. Do you find that people generally want to talk about their about their story, some do, some don't, you know, some people have never been asked by a reporter to give comment. Some are very wary of the media, right, they don't want their words to be misconstrued. Some people are very enthusiastic, you know, I've had the doors slammed in my face, I've been invited in for coffee and tea, and everything in between. So, you know, the part of reporting is not that you always get nice treatment. But if you try, you know, and spend enough time doing it, you sort of meet the people who have the stories to tell. Do you think that the when you're reading those scientific papers and things that scientists could use a little help, you know, a little little journalistic help in telling their stories, I think it would be more effective that way? Yes, scientists are usually very good at what they do. Communication is not always a strong suit. And the best scientists, the most effective ones are the ones who really can convey their research and convey the importance of what they're trying to accomplish and trying to find. And the scientists that, you know, can go on TV, or do podcasts or write articles for newspapers are really the ones with the best chance of not only raising research funding, but also being heard and being seen.
So one of the challenges I've heard people talk about with this is that a lot of the science that gets done, it's hard to find a story there, right? I mean, so you're finding some facts, or you're discovering some phenomenon, you're, you know, whatever, right. But then you can always turn this into the story of what you in your lab discovering. I mean, like, what's where, because that says, a journalist, you keep on talking about the stories, right? Sort of, like, let's find the person, let's find who's affected by this. Right. Do you have any tips in terms of how to turn that general? You said, You look for some trend, or, you know, there's so there's a sense a, a story out there about America or about some new technological change, but then you have to change that. And you have to make that personal. Yeah. So think about that project.
Well, like Gene research that sort of yield some, you know, super complicated genetic difference between different races, you know, like that. Those are hard stories to conceptualize. So you don't have to take every finding and every study the same way seriously. But you know, we do all sorts of stories, a National Geographic and one that comes to mind to your question, we did a story maybe like three years ago on dung beetles, and how dung beetles, effectively, kind of were these, they researchers put silicone boots over their legs that allow them to walk over hotter sand, right? And it's like, who cares, right, like, but it's also sort of fascinating. So like, here's the way you would tell that story. Maybe not. You wouldn't talk to dung beetles. You might not even talk to the researcher, maybe. But photos or videos of dung beetles wearing boots, right? I mean, I click on that, right? Right. So pictures visuals really help you know, can you bring this to life? Can you show a beautiful photo of you know, a dung beetle at sunset? You know, when it's a story about, you know, prairie grass in western Kansas, you know, that's, that's not like the sexiest story, but if you can pair it with beautiful photography, with stunning portraits of people affected, you know, usually that'll draw in the eye and once you have people's attention, maybe they'll read the story.
This is one of the things National Geographic has been so good at for so long, right sort of photos.
We invest a lot in the photography and a lot can sometimes be months or years 1000s hundreds of 1000s of photos to try to get a dozen or a couple dozen that are really hard work. Right? Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, with the photos though, there's sort of an emotional component to right I mean, that's, that's drawing people in. So how do you think about you know, using emotion in your articles and things like that to kind of drop linby was still told, you know, an objective story, right? Is it okay to sort of lean one way or the other? Or, you know, how do you how do you go about thinking with optics of that we want to get their attention, we want to be honest and how we do it, you know, we don't want to put, you know, a photo of, you know, a salacious photo of like a half naked person, right. Gotcha. Now you got it. But, you know, we want to draw them in with, like you said, emotion, you know, with a sense of, here's why you should care. So maybe with a dung beetle, it's the photo, or the video that shows something you've never seen, that sort of makes you full of wonder, right. With an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon, maybe it's portraits that make you see in someone's eyes, something similar that you feel right, and sort of makes you feel that the world isn't as big as you thought, and that these cultures are not as foreign or distant, or exotic sized, right? As you would think. So it's using visual storytelling to connect with people in a way that they are interested, and is honest, you know, and not every single person is going to be interested in every story. That's not our job. But in the magazine, you know, to find a story or two that someone can read and look at and just stare at the page and go, wow, wow, about the earth or a culture a place? Yeah, that's the goal. And when we get it, you know, it's really gratifying.
What do you think about the state of culture today in terms of openness to science reporting, particular agriculture reporting, there's been a period of time when people thought science journalism was, you know, on its way out, right sort of newspapers had their science gig or whatever you call it, right. And sort of, you know, those things got lost, right. And those are gone by the wayside. So people have been worried about science journalism for a while, but we've got a lot of new, modern new ways to reach people today. And things maybe look different with podcast landscape with National Geographic is reaching out, it's not just the print magazine, right? It's a web presence. How do you feel about the state of science journalism, and just the popular interest in science reporting and science stories?
I think it's a good time for journalism. And it's generally a good time for journalists. That's not true. For every small town newspaper, not every website can survive, right? But there are more people reading more news now than ever before in history, science, sports, business, whatever it is, people have this hunger, and social media has made it easy to feed that hunger constantly. So we have more news out there, we have more reporters digging for more things, the business of news isn't the same. It's much harder to make a profit in those and that drives our decisions. What stories are worth investing in and when which aren't. But one other side effect that really challenges journalists and science journalists is, you know, the believability. You know, how we're perceived by readers, you know, in this era of fake news of people miss trusting either the mainstream media or just the media in general, is that facts are subjective, that a story that is reported rather objectively could be seen as propaganda. Right. Right. That's, that's new. And that poses challenge, because even, you know, 20 years ago, you know, a story that was printed that had a series of facts and quotes in it was generally taken as the way the world was. Now we have almost anyone can produce news and report news on social media at any time. And that leads to kind of a crisis of credibility for a lot of what we're reading and getting right.
It's been one of these things that I've been a lot of people are thinking about, sort of scientists are sometimes worried about getting out there in the public and sort of advocating right and, and being engaged in policy debates and engaging, as Jay was saying, on the emotional side of things, right. So you might understand that you need that to reach people, but it's taking another step, at least outside the comfort zone, and maybe outside the zone of what you feel your responsibility as a scientist is right to sort of stay objective and neutral, right. And it's an interesting thing that we're now at a state where, like, even if you're staying objective and neutral, you're in the same in some sense, you're being perceived the same whether you went out there and resized or you just stayed totally neutral. And I don't know what that means for the state of scientists communicating and advocating and getting engaged in policy but it's for sure, a different world.
Yeah, I don't think the role of a journalist either to be neutral or objective. Neutral means sort of standing in the middle, right? Even though the middle might not be where the debate is raging. Right, right. And objective means sort of considering both sides Kids with equal weight when both sides might not, you know, have equal levels of research.
By now that both sides tell both sides stories. It's a real problem.
I think the role of a journalist is to be skeptical of to take every set of facts and be scrutinized, and whether you believe them where they come from who's coming up with them? And usually the people who have kind of the most evidence for what they're claiming, are the ones who are right. You know, and the people who don't have much to backup what they're saying. Don't have much to backup. But that speaks for itself.
Yes, has something right. Yeah
So I mean, you mentioned that the trust thing and in you know, and there's the emotional component, some people like reading what, you know, what makes them feel good, or what they agree with, right? So do you see? What's our sort of path out of this? If everybody can be saying what they want all the time, right? You see journalism going in a sort of different direction? Or how do journalists make sure that the people perceive them the way they want to be perceived? I don't know. It's a really good question. And it's sort of you know, our whole democracy kind of rests on the answer to it like, what will happen if people become more fractured, in what they believe and where they're getting their information? I do think eventually, this kind of national fever we have right now of partisan divisiveness will end eventually, I think it usually has in history. And we'll get to a point where we sort of settled on a new order and status quo. But you know, social media has done something that has never been done before in world history. It's it's democratized media. And it's enabled anyone anywhere to spread something and gain traction, not based on fact, but based on popularity, right. So I don't know how media is going to change with that. But my role as a journalist and the reporters that I edit, is not to try to change the news, business and change all of journalism. It's to just keep doing the best job we can. And hopefully, that's good enough. And if it's not, we'll know, but there's really nothing else we can do. You have any advice for young people who want to get into journalism? Run? I don't know. And I don't mean that. Journalism is a great, great, great field. And it's so rewarding. And you know, my journalism professor in college told me, he said, go into this field, if you want to have a front row seat to history, right. And that's it. Yeah. I mean, how, why when that captured your imagination, and he was right, I mean, seeing political events, seeing, you know, big cultural shifts and events and being able to talk to fascinating people. I mean, that is the major upside. The downsides are that it's really competitive, you won't become rich. And it'll be hard to grow a career, especially as more and more people want to be want to be journalists, younger and younger people generally have, you know, the skills for multimedia that older people don't, right, sure. But hey, there are more people reading news. And there, there's more of an appetite for news than ever before. So you know, if you want to go for it, absolutely. Go for it. And I think you'll have a lot of fun doing it. That's great. We want to be respectful of your time, but we really appreciate you know, taking a few minutes to talk to us then, you know, thanks so much. This has been great.
Thanks to the conversation. Thanks so much. Thanks.
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Our music was adapted from Dr. Wayne Goins’s album Chronicles of Carmela. Special thanks to him for providing that to us. Something to Chew On is produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University.