Down a Dark Rabbit Hole

May 09,2016
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Cultural trends wax and wane, as fads and fashions popular with consumers evolve over time.  Right now the trendy narrative about the conventional practices common across American agriculture – and why those conventions are supposedly suspect – is presenting a real challenge to dairy farmers and, frankly, all mainstream food producers. 

We seem to have stumbled down a rabbit hole into an alternate world where prudent, progressive practices are viewed – at least by some – as problematic, even malicious.

As an example, consider the idea that productive, healthy dairy cows, are somehow abnormal.  This was the gist of recent stories in National Public Radio and the Washington Post: that increases in per-cow milk production are not a healthy signal, but rather omens that cows are being exploited in ways that compromise their health. 

Never mind the fact that rising milk output per cow is hardly a 21st century trend.  Looking back 70 years to the end of World War II, there’s been a straight, steady line continuing to this day, charting the growth every decade in how much milk the average dairy cow produces. That consistent increase doesn’t indicate that we’ve suddenly decided to push cows past some arbitrary limit. Rather, it’s a sign that proactive improvements in breeding, feeding, housing, and veterinary care have a positive compounding effect over time.  Nature has helped improve bovine genetics, but nurture matters more. The evidence is clear from improvements in milk quality that farmers are actually taking better care of their cows today, leading to better and greater milk production.

Another emerging theme leading to both policy and marketing battles is the role of genetically-modified foods in American’s diets.  Bioengineered crops have been used for 20 years, but it’s obvious of late that the food supply chain is facing an unprecedented backlash –  not from a majority of consumers, but by a very vocal subset – against GMO grains and oilseeds.  Companies such as Whole Foods, Chipotle, and most recently, Dannon, have publicly stated their intentions to move away from the use of GMO grains and ingredients in their food supply.  And many other food processors and retailers face a daily barrage of requests (often sounding more like threats) to expunge GMOs from their supply chains.

What’s frustrating is the traction that this anti-GMO effort has garnered, in spite of the science supporting the value of bioengineered plant traits. The evidence is clear that not only are GM crops safe, they also provide broad environmental benefits by reducing soil loss, as well as reducing farmers' use of water, pesticides and fuel.

Today’s trendy narrative, however, is the mistaken notion that without Roundup Ready plant traits, there would be less use of pesticides – when in fact there would be much more. The great benefit to the environment of GMO crops is that they require far less use of pesticides and other chemicals. Farmers have overwhelmingly adopted GM crop technology because it increases productivity while improving agricultural sustainability.

Another development very apparent in the meat and poultry business is the push for products raised without any antibiotics.  This effort builds on the notion that drugs important to humans should not be used in animals, despite the fact that the overwhelming number of antibiotic resistant infections occur in hospitals, and are related to pathogens that have absolutely nothing to do with food animals.  But the prohibition being advocated is that no antibiotics should ever be used in the raising of a farm animal, even though we know that prudent stewardship of antimicrobial products can help treat infections and restore to health an animal that otherwise could get even sicker, or die.  Again, as is the case with GMO use in crops, the marketing assertion runs counter to the very essence of sustainability.

Even the important role that farmer-owned cooperatives play in dairy marketing has been challenged recently, despite the reality that cooperatives represent a larger percentage of farmers than 50 years ago.  While some corporate P.R. marketers are trying to exploit the trendy notion that selling milk directly to consumers is cool, the reality is that it’s hard enough harvesting milk (as well as crops, in most cases) on an ongoing basis to also insist dairy farmers be milk marketers as well.  That’s why farmers belong to cooperatives in the first place: to help bridge the distance, figurative and literal, between them and the marketplace. 

All of these marketing trends center on the notion that conventional agriculture – the mainstream business of producing food for America and the world – is bad. And if it’s not bad, at least it’s not hip. Technology is hip if it comes from Apple. It’s bad if it comes from agriculture.  But food marketing trendiness does not equate to truth. 

Assumptions about what is good farming, or good food, are regularly twisted into declarations that don’t really stand up to greater scrutiny.  The frustration for farmers is that their hard work and striving to do the right thing – even when backed by research that demonstrates tangible benefits – gets swept away by a marketer’s puffery.

The effort to change this narrative, led by NMPF and other organizations that are devoted to sharing the facts on agriculture, will be one of the major challenges we face in the years ahead.