I read with interest the “Agriculture in America” supplement in the November 30, 2012 edition of USA Today. It was well done. It made my chest expand a bit with pride. It felt good.
We are blessed in this country. Food is cheap, consuming less than 10% of our disposable income. By and large the food supply is safe. The offering is incredibly diverse with thousands of new products every year.
So, what’s the problem? Why is there so much angst about food? Everyone seems to be questioning what we do and how we do it. We wish they would just say “thank you.” But they don’t and we wonder why.
Farming is different today. The commercialization of agriculture has forever changed the rural landscape and the way we are viewed. While most large farms remain responsibly managed and family owned, they are much larger and there are fewer of them. This concentration and accompanying specialization has helped create a void between food producers and consumers, and even among producer groups.
It has also exposed a number of “externalities” that, while they may have existed, were not so obvious with a less concentrated structure. Today’s large farms, particularly those producing animal products, may pollute the air and the water we drink. People are less willing to grant get-out-of-jail-free cards to an industry that looks, feels and acts like every other business in America. Concentrated agriculture has raised new, difficult and legitimate local and national public policy issues about land use, labor, workplace safety and, of course, air and water contamination. All deserve to be addressed.
Food consumers are energized. Everywhere we look, ordinary people are talking about food. Food networks are booming, as are cooking schools and in-home experimentation. The President’s wife is raising a garden on the White House lawn and encouraging young people to eat right and exercise. Gardens are springing up everywhere, even on vacant lots in America’s largest cities. There is a growing understanding about the linkages between diet and health. Our national obesity problem is center stage. Billions are being made producing and selling organic, natural and local foods.
All this interest in what we do should thrill us. But, it hasn’t. Tragically, commercial agriculture’s response has been mostly negative. Our leave-us-alone attitude has painted us into a corner making us look like the enemy, hurting our chances to help meet the world’s emerging food production challenge.
What to do? How can we alter course and turn all this interest in food into a positive force for production agriculture? I offer three suggestions:
1. Admit the reality. Forget the Norman Rockwell pictures of rural America in the 1930s and 40s. They aren’t relevant. Listen, really listen, to what others are saying and doing about food. Read their books and pay attention to their concerns. Drop the defensive posturing.Forget about sector subsidies that have outlived their public policy purpose. Become outraged, not defensive, about the few “bad actors” in our industry who end up on the nightly news for food safety, animal welfare and environmental pollution violations. Help others understand by using numbers, real numbers. What are the real costs of changing the way we produce pork, poultry products or veal, for example? As a former retail procurement executive, I want to understand the costs, not your politics.
2. Work on the really important stuff. You can’t do that without knowing the numbers, the facts. Not every aggravation is worth fighting, much less winning. It makes lots of money for the lawyers but it saps our credibility and weakens our position on the really important stuff. For me, biotechnology is a really big issue. I don’t see how we’ll accomplish the emerging food production challenge and respond positively to all the pressures on the natural resource base without biotechnology. It’s a message we should be able to sell every day to people with common sense.
3. Form coalitions to both educate and shape public policy. Not everyone who questions what we do is wrong or unworthy as a partner. Coalitions help to increase political clout and make arguments more credible. Commercial farmers have more in common with each other, food consumers, the “locavores” and environmentalists than they perhaps realize. They do care about clean air and clean water. They do care about animal welfare and health. They do care about safe and healthy food consumption habits. Let’s begin to honestly and aggressively work with those who have same interests. The stakes are too high for us to do otherwise.