Wednesday, December 12, 2012

We are all farmers

One of the most important problems facing farmers and ranchers today is the disconnect between consumers and producers. This disconnect is potentially dangerous to both consumers and producers, and arguably poses a threat to the very existence of our nation. Unfortunately, the disconnect continues to be set in adversarial tones by the major media and many in government.

It’s a thorny problem, because so few are feeding so many. One might think the problem therefore could lie in the concentration of power in agricultural food production – that a mighty few could control the food supply. In fact, the opposite is the case. The majority control the food supply. The majority have it within their power to unintentionally wreck the agricultural sector by pushing for changes, regulations and policies in a system they don’t understand. Such changes, regulations and policies might be superficially well intended, but if they destroy food production everyone will go hungry.

We are all food consumers. We all have a vested survival interest in food. Consumers pay for, and ultimately control, food production. In that sense, just as we are all consumers, so are we all farmers. Perhaps this is a message that will help ease the disconnect.

The primary disconnect is that most consumers are so far removed from food production that they have little basic understanding of what farmers and ranchers do, and why. Farmers and ranchers, who deal with the how and why every day, struggle to understand a point of view that doesn’t include what, to them, is common wisdom.

Political activists and opportunists, including many in the media and in government, take advantage of the situation by boldly misrepresenting objective facts in order to manipulate public opinion. The media meme is essentially this – farmers and ranchers are intentionally producing unsafe food and harming the environment to make money. Politicians, government officials and bureaucrats often posit government policy and regulation as the only thing preventing out-of-control farmers and ranchers from poisoning both consumers and the environment.

In a nutshell, agriculture has become highly politicized. Like many other topics in the national discourse, agriculture is now an ideological battleground. As has often been said (perhaps first by Samuel Johnson in The Idler, ca. 1758), the first casualty of war is truth.

Producers recognize that very little – if any – of the national discourse on agriculture and agriculture policy has anything to do with the reality of producing food. I suspect that many consumers have a sense that when it comes to agriculture they are being fed a political narrative rather than factual information.

For producers, the political narrative is extremely frustrating. An overwhelming majority of policy makers, bureaucrats, and reporters make assertions which are simply not true, assertions which they are absolutely unqualified to make. I suspect that the majority of consumers are skeptical about such sweeping assertions. A few examples:

GMO’s, or Genetically Modified Organisms. The narrative asserts that GMO crops are a ticking time bomb which will unleash monstrous mutating plagues across the face of the planet. Evidence supporting this assertion can only be found in 1950’s sci-fi movies. The fact that man has been manipulating plant and animal genetics for hundreds of thousands of years, and that nature has been doing so for billions of years – with no sign of mutant plagues, mind you – is ignored.

LFTB. Lean Finely Textured Beef. This product, called “pink slime” in the media, in congress and even by many in the USDA, is said to be rotting, leftover meat, treated with poisonous ammonia and force-fed to helpless school children. Just think about that for a moment and ask yourself whether it seems a reasonable proposition.

Antibiotic resistant superbugs. A recent New York Times editorial, written by a self-proclaimed “foodie”, contained the following phrase. “Indeed, about 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States go to farm animals – leading to the risk of more antibiotic-resistant microbes, which already cause infections that kill some 100,000 Americans annually.” That sentence is a masterful piece of deception, leading one to believe that food animals suffer the same diseases as humans, and that mistreatment of these diseases causes antibiotic resistant superbugs to be transmitted to human beings – somehow – and kill 100,000 consumers each year. Again, ask yourself whether this makes sense.

If these goofy claims are frustrating for producers, imagine how frustrating they must be for consumers. Most consumers, 98-99 percent of Americans, are so far removed from any contact with food production that they have no ability to put such claims into reasonable perspective or context. A great many – perhaps most – probably recognize that there is something fishy in such irrational assertions. But they’re busy people, and lack the time to investigate each claim. They are further hamstringed by the lack of easily accessed, objective data. They expect the media to provide objective truth, but the media does not. Nor does the government.

To understand the frustration of the consumer, try an experiment. Type “antibiotic resistance food animals” into your search engine of choice. Click on a few of the hits. You will find a lot of assertions, such as:

“These drugs can affect the meat, milk, and eggs produced from those animals and can be the source of superbugs. For example, farm animals, particularly pigs, are believed (though not proven) to be able to infect people with MRSA.”

Unfortunately, such assertions are almost exclusively misrepresentations. If you take the time to click on citation links and read the papers, you’ll find that they tell a completely different story. Still, I challenge you to find, in less than a day, a document on the internet which gives a more objective overview such as the following:

“Although antibiotics and antibiotic residues can be found in meat, milk and eggs immediately following drug administration, such residues are quickly metabolized and flushed from the animals system, and federally mandated withdrawal periods prevent food products containing residues from being sold for consumption. Though it is theoretically possible for antibiotic resistant food animal pathogens to genetically transmit resistance to human pathogens, there is no evidence that this has ever occurred and USDA inspectors and researchers are constantly monitoring food streams to ensure safety.”

Try a similar search at the USDA Web-site. There you will find a wealth of data, but no clear answer to basic and fundamental questions.

For the consumer, finding information about agriculture and food production is a serious challenge. While we can argue the cause of this, it’s clear that neither major media nor government are willing or able to provide simple, honest objectivity.

Agricultural producers can and should take the lead in resetting the narrative. Farmers and ranchers should embrace consumers as partners. We should show our fellow consumers how the narrative is crafted to divide us. We should show how such division benefits only the fringe activists and self-proclaimed intellectual elite. We should show the looming consequences of fear mongering and over-regulation. We should show non-ag consumers how they are being abused by those who claim to be protecting and informing them. We should invite them to join us a fellow agriculturalists, and to work together to take back our lives and our futures.

No comments:

Post a Comment