Hanging Together

July 01,2011
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As we swing into summer, Americans planning to barbecue on the 4th of July were confronted with yet another undercover video, from a hog farm in Iowa, where allegedly malicious acts against pigs were captured on tape. These videos are appearing so frequently now they’re becoming predictable.

Meanwhile, the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently held a webinar to help organize what it calls “
Food Day,” when, on October 24th, people will be encouraged to "eat real" and support “healthy, affordable food grown in a sustainable, humane way.” Naturally, those objectives can’t be met with food from “factory farms,” which CSPI and other like-minded groups claim are responsible for negative impacts on soil, air, water, biodiversity, the decreased social capital in rural America, global climate change…all because they supposedly rely on chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics.

In a growing number of places, from schools to restaurants, flavored milk and genetically-modified food ingredients are out; locally-grown and organic foods are in. The production of food has always had its critics, going back more than 100 years. But a review of the themes, stories and conversations taking place, both in the traditional media, as well as online in many new social media outlets, certainly confirms the notion that voices critical of today’s conventional food system are growing in number, as well as in volume.

A variety of laudable efforts have been launched in recent years to counter these voices, and NMPF has helped out with many of them. Dairy Management Inc., the national dairy checkoff organization, is also working on an image initiative that will be important to our sector of agriculture. In addition to commodity-specific efforts, National Milk is also now part of the new
U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance

This broad coalition was launched late last year, and now has among its 40+ members an enormous cross-section of production agriculture groups. It’s as if Ben Franklin’s well-worn Independence Day observation from 235 years ago about the need for an alliance in the colonies is now being applied to American agriculture: “We must hang together, gentlemen...else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.”

The difference between USFRA and other efforts is both in breadth, and depth. Livestock groups are working with grain and oilseeds organizations, putting aside differences over divisive issues like biofuels. State groups are working with national ones, and checkoff and non-checkoff funded organizations are both stepping up.

Another major difference is that while the goal is education, this isn’t just aimed at consumers; it’s also focusing on processors, retailers, and foodservice companies. These are the direct customers of the farm and ranch sector, they’re the ones who sell directly to consumers, and as a result, they’re the gatekeepers and the marketers who devise many of the messages and products that consumers see.

And ultimately, the big difference with this effort is that it’s not about telling; it’s about talking. By that, I mean it has to be a conversation with Americans – a two-way dialogue – as opposed to a lecture or recitation of facts. By conversing, we can acknowledge that at least a portion of consumers have concerns. Some of those concerns are grounded in myths or misunderstandings, but others are based on the reality of today’s food production system.

Rather than highlighting differences, this conversation has to seek out areas of shared interest. Everyone eats, and everyone wants to have access to healthy food. In this dialogue, farmers need to stress their commitment to making continual improvements in their techniques, not necessarily focusing on technologies and methodologies that can be confusing or scary, but on the benefits and positive outcomes of doing more with less.

Most of all, the focus of the USFRA movement (it’s more than just a campaign, which implies a beginning and ending), we need to invite all voices to the table for this conversation. Arguments between advocates of opposing food systems create tension, and force consumers to choose one side or the other. The key here is to seek common ground with those who acknowledge that modern farming is here, has a right to exist, and is part of the solution. Obviously, there are entities that won’t make such an acknowledgement, and we can’t have a rational discussion with them. But most people want what I believe most dairy farmers themselves want: safe, sustainable food for their families, today and tomorrow.

This approach recognizes that thanks to everything from the aforementioned hidden videos, to the power of social networking, the world is much more transparent, and information (sometimes misinformation) spreads more rapidly and broadly than ever. These factors aren’t going to change, so we have to change our approach to sharing information, both listening as well as speaking. Farmers must be part of that process, which is why we’ll be helping to recruit more of them to join this effort in the weeks and months ahead.

Just like the issues surrounding this movement, the USFRA’s efforts are going to be a long-term effort without a quick fix. But it’s high time we get started.