What if it is really agriculture that is setting the tone for our negative press?
I have been thinking a lot lately about how Agriculture is perceived. I have joined Twitter, something I never thought I’d do, but I must admit it has really helped me re-vamp my desire to blog about my passion. Twitter has also made me very aware of how many groups are out there throwing around those buzz words “Factory Farms” “industrial food” and now even “Real food” which seems to think that conventionally raised food does not qualify. All of these phrases immediately conjure up negativity, fear, and even a bit of mystery.
It is proven that people fear the unknown. It is far more likely for people to fear a certain race of people, blacks for example, if they have few interactions with people of that race. It is common for people to fear pitbulls until they come to know one. So, reasonably, people seem to fear what farmers are really doing out there on those large stretches of land, all alone, raising something that will end up on their plate. Blacks make up 12.6% of America, according to the US Census Bureau, and an estimated 8 million Pitbulls in America. At a meek 2% of the population, we really can’t expect Americans to venture out of the metropolis and suburbia and knock on one of our doors and ask to see how we live to see if their fears are well-founded. And when we are self-proclaiming food “producers” of the beef (pork, poultry, etc) “industry”, I’m pretty sure we are further contributing to the notion that we operate as some sort of machine instead of as compassionate human beings.
Bear with me as I take you down a somewhat tedious road. I think this is a topic worth the scrutiny.
Let’s break down how “food producer” might be interpreted by someone on the outside. Dictionary.com provides us with 5 definitions for the verb “produce”
- 1. to bring into existence. I wouldn’t really say we bring cattle into existence. Or bring meat into existence. Although if you use this definition, it would line up with some accusations that people in food production add things like “pink slime” and ammonia into meat, and THAT produce would definitely be something brought into existence by a human. Not very accurate to what we do.
- 2. to bring into existence by creative or intellectual ability. Similar to definition 1.
- 3. to make or manufacture. I don’t manufacture meat, and I certainly don’t want to be known as a meat manufacturer. Do you?
- 4. to bring forth; give birth. Well, I don’t even need to explain why this definition doesn’t make me a food producer.
- 5. to provide, furnish, or supply. Ahhh. Now this, this one fits. We definitely provide meat & other food products for Americans.
Okay, so we found a successful definition! But look how many definitions I had to look past in order to find one that maintained a positive mental image. The general public will NOT take any extra effort to prove our innocence or positive impact on the world.
Now, let’s brave the term “industry”
- 1. the aggregate of manufacturing or technically productive enterprises in a particular field, often named after its principle product such as the automobile industry or steel industry. Not a terrible definition I suppose. It utilizes the word “produce” which leaves lots of room for negativity in itself, but it’s really the examples that make me weary. Automobile and steel industry creates a feel of cold & factory-like business. Not a great parallel for the hard work, dedication, and love we put into our herds & flocks.
- 2. any general business activity; commercial enterprise. It is true that agriculture is a business like most everything these days. But everyone knows that businesses have one goal above all else: profit. And we know that more and more businesses in this country are putting aside ethics and morals to pick a more profitable decision. While we need to make a living from raising livestock, we do not have the option of picking profit as our sole goal. We also must incorporate ethical treatment & care.
- 3. systematic work or labor. Again, agriculture is a business, and we need systems in place to keep things organized. But something about the phrasing still gives room for the interpretation of a factory-like, robotic, thoughtless process.
I’m thinking it’s time for the people of Agriculture to start coining their own (accurate!) buzz words, in order to hold our own & be able to dis-spell misconceptions without even having to launch into a defensive paragraph. I don’t think it will be a single solution, but I do think it is something incredibly easy to overlook, yet so very important. Every word we use to describe agriculture is carefully weighed by concerned foodies. So let’s just give it chance. I’ll start:
I am a food provider of the beef community.
Provide has very similar definitions to produce (to supply, make available). But while I do not want many things to be “produced” for me, I do think it sounds quite nice to be provided for. It gives me the warm & fuzzy feeling of security. And this case, I am feeling very confident & secure that I will not go hungry because of you, the food provider.
Community. A VERY different word than industry. It is a very disarming term, and among the best of dictionary.com’s definitions is as follows:
“an … occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists”
Now that seems accurate to me. As agriculturalists, we all share a slew of common characteristics and interests. And we are definitely distinct, in our 2%, from the larger society (the nation as a whole) in which we exist.
Community also creates an image of “kumbaya”…of teamwork & encouragement. In the case of the beef community, there are MANY compartments (seedstock, cow/calf, feedlot, packer) that need to work together as a team to provide the end product of safe & nutritious meat.
I know, I know, I’m asking for a lot. It will take a significant amount of effort to change your habits of using terms we’ve used for a long time to describe ourselves. And it will take even longer for our new terms to reach the ears of skeptics and consumers. But hopefully I have convinced you that this is worth our consideration. “Say what you mean and mean what you say” is a very popular quote among our culture. And FINALLY, I feel that I really mean what I say, without having to give further description, when I tell you I provide food for you from within the beef community.
What do you think? Do you think something so simple and fundamental (two words!!) can really help us change our negative image? Are there other terms we use daily that may be interpreted inaccurately by someone who doesn’t have an understanding of what we actually mean?
So, FINALLY, after years of being in the Ag world/business, I had the opportunity to watch the infamous “Food, Inc” documentary/movie that is out and popular amongst millions of Americans. There were a few major things that stuck out to me in particular as I watched. And after hearing so many stories of people who became vegetarians because of this documentary, I had some pretty high expectations. I tried very hard to go in to this viewing with an open mind. But honestly, after about 5 minutes, this video started losing my confidence–fast. Even still, I like to find the positive in things, and this documentary was no exception.
- The soybeans.
I have to agree that the whole idea of “owning” a seed is really problematic to Agriculture in America. I have heard many stories similar to those in the documentary of farmers losing battles with companies like Monsanto because the genetics have ended up on the farmer’s land. It is amazing to me that many of these cases are won by the big companies. Any person who has taken a basic Biology class should recall that “Tree Sperm” or seeds are spread and fertilized through a variety of methods…but almost all of them require the seeds to travel across long distances of land. Tumbleweeds, wind, birds, etc are all responsible for spreading new plants to different areas. It is absolutely impossible for neighboring farms to keep their particular strains entirely separate. It has nothing to do with being a theif and everything to do with the laws of nature. I hope that farmers and cooperations can come to an understanding and allow for everyone to exist and compete in the market. We do not allow monopolies in this country and I sure hope as we move forward in all areas of business that we enforce the right to a competitive market. I plan to do more research about the truths of this issue and I’ll get back to you.
- The push for people to take interest in what they are eating.
Just in the last 50 years or so, America has become more removed from its sources of food. My great-uncle and great-grandparents (? or some family far in the past) had their own little farm. Not enough to avoid the grocery store altogether, but a few chickens, goats, and vegetables. Even as a younger child, every summer we grew our own vegetables and herbs (I can’t say we still do, but I hope to return to that soon). Nowadays, the thought of picking your own warm eggs or drinking milk fresh off the cow with the cream on the top is just so…old-fashioned. Or even…dirty. What I like about the “hippies” of this country, and documentaries such as Food, Inc. is the idea that maybe the “old-fashioned” had some great wisdom. They had such rich, tasty, homemade foods. “Preserves” were made yearly in recycled glass jars, and “preservatives” had not even a hint of similarity in meaning to today’s food additives. This idea of really taking the time to learn how and where food comes from is still at the very core of today’s agriculturalist/Farmer, and I do think it’s great that more and more everyday American’s are “circling back”, in a way, to become once again familiar with their nourishment.
- Urging people to demand more than just cheap prices.
I feel that there is a great push in this nation and across the globe for people to become more aware of not only what they eat, but how their lifestyle affects everything from business to the environment to international relations. As the Agricultural Revolution has continued, humanity has continued to strive for “more on less”. Let’s look at the invention of the cotton gin. This machine allowed us to produce more cotton on less labor, therefore allowing it to be sold cheaper. The result that was not necessarily foreseen, however, is the effect on required slaves. Instead of reducing the number of slaves needed by having a machine that worked quicker, it provided the opportunity to sell cotton to more of the globe. This, in turn, actually increased the number of slaves needed, to keep up with the new demand. (You can Google this phenomenon, but it is also explained here). Similarly, we have learned how to raise more meat on fewer resources. Instead of only being able to afford meat once a week, you can have meat in your diet once a meal. While this has a great opportunity to have a balanced diet of meat, fruits, vegetables, etc year-round, day or night, wealthy or poor, it also raises new concerns. Are cheap prices and “availability to all!” really the best choice for America? or the Earth? Are we willing to research whether organic or free range or [insert any food buzzword] really is better for not just the environment, but everything else too? It is hard to argue that producing more veggies and meat on less land is the wrong choice, simply because…aren’t we feeding the world?! Aren’t we saving other countries from starvation because we can produce enough food to not only provide for Americans, but for other nations in need? I believe the point is to continue researching, continue studying cause-effect, and continue improving our system so that it is well-rounded, and not just all about making food so incredibly affordable. As we [humankind] are coming to realize, no matter how ingenious we are, we will not be able to sustain and exponential expand in population. How that relatively new realization affects our decisions on Agriculture (and even decisions on human life) should be very interesting to see. Let’s not make it into a war between one side or the other. It is not environmentalist against humanitarian against farmer. It needs to be a collective decision that evaluates each concern. The world is not black and white evil vs good. It is a bunch of grey area compromises.
The Bad and the Ugly:
- “The Farm Fantasy”.
The beginning of this film shows images used in packaging of fields and pastures, dotted with silhouettes of seemingly delighted livestock. And then it uses the phrase “farm fantasy”, and goes on to explain how this is an untruth about Agriculture. I had to laugh out loud. How is this a fantasy? I understand their intention of pointing out that there are “factory farms”, but the existence of such things does not negate the existence of down-home lush green pastures. Do people really buy that? I mean, are there really people in suburbia or metropolitans who have not, on some drastically long and painful family road trip, passed such a beautiful farm as the ones I see daily? These “fantasy” farms absolutely do exist.
Little pieces of paradise dotted around the nation. And let me share something else with you. If you’ve noticed them becoming few and farther between, you can probably blame your own neighborhood just as equally as a large company like Smithfield. Because your need (and mine, for that matter…I grew up in suburbia too you know) for a nice lawn and 3 car garage and 4 bedrooms for 2 people type of home has grown some fabulous neighborhoods. And at least in North Carolina/Virginia, many of these neighborhoods are called things like “Fairfield Farm”. Do you know why that is? Because your pretty little brick house was built by a contractor who bought out that little all-American farming family and put a row of mailboxes on what USED to be Fairfield Farm. It’s tough cookies for any small business, and that includes small farmers. There’s a buy-out price for everything, and unfortunately, that includes “fantasy” farms. But they haven’t all been bought out yet, and don’t forget that.
- Very Talented Editing
This is something that is in no way new to the world of journalism, sensationalism, book-writing, etc. Call it “persuasive writing”, call it whatever. The idea is to show bits of truths to create a specific effect and achieve a certain goal. While it is very successful at accomplishing the goal at hand, the viewer/reader/audience must be very careful before assuming that these bits of truths are the whole. entire. truth. As I watched Food, Inc, I noticed that I was feeling a rising sense of injustice. I kept looking over to my brother and friend and saying, “Feedlots don’t LOOK like that!” “It isn’t LIKE that!”. I didn’t mean to say “they staged all of this and nothing about it is true”. What I mean is, the way the documentary is filmed, you walk away feeling a certain way. Because I have experience in feedlots, I shall focus on that part because I can promise and give my word, 100%, that I know what I’m talking about. The movie never REALLY go into great discussion about the overcrowding and inhumane conditions of a feedlot. But didn’t you walk away feeling that? Didn’t you think to yourself, “Ew. Look, they can’t even move. They’re like little sardines. How dreadful”. The editing was very clever. This is similar to what you saw:
Lots of cattle. Shoulder to shoulder. Barely enough space to turn around. This picture is small and not of great quality, but the point is still obvious: overcrowded and miserable. Who would want to live on one of those? How do we allow food to be grown that way? Poor cows. This is a picture of a small truth of feedlots, as shown by documentaries such as Food, Inc, that lead you to believe an untruth.
Now let’s look at the whole truth of this image:
True, they are still on dirt. But they absolutely have the space to leave each other’s sides. They could certainly get to the feed by spreading down the bunks on that entire side of the pen, instead of bunching in that corner. They have friends (cattle are a herding species, and they naturally aggregate), they have a nice view of green, they have readily available food and water. And they definitely, definitely are not packed shoulder to shoulder. I’m sure you can see which part of the 2nd picture I cropped in order to make the first. Similarly, I’m sure Food, Inc cameramen used a close-up of the cattle to silently depict a crowded, awful cow hell. They neglected to show you images of their open surroundings. They left out the visual information that these cattle could clump and unclump on their own accord at any point in time. While the documentary claims to want to expose the whole truth to you, it really doesn’t do that, does it? It does a great job of showing you bits of the true story. It does a great job of opening your mind to the possibility that food production is not what you once thought. And now I aim to do the same. Perhaps food production is also not what you believed it to be after watching this film. Does this second image change your opinion of the first?
- The poor mother who lost her child to a hamburger
“Any foods likely to be contaminated with pathogens should be heated to 160°F; at this temperature, most pathogens are killed very quickly. Check the temperature with a thermometer to be certain the food is fully cooked.”
— You Can Prevent Foodborne Illness – [a very detailed and helpful resource released by Washington State University, Oregon State University, and University of Idaho that can be found here ]
I just wanted to share a few thoughts about the link I shared below, now that I have a little more time. I think the goals of this group are fantastic! They want to make resources and data easily accessible to all age groups of US food consumers (which is everyone!). They realize the importance of farmers and the hard work involved (see my post on this). A few parts of their page I found particularly great (so check them out!):
–The About Ag section: discusses their objectives and mission
–The Meat Myths link on the left column
–IBM’s Connection to Ag (also found here). My dad works for IBM, which I found personally cool because I didn’t think our career choices were very relevant. But also to all my vegetarian friends–I found it especially surprising (given the way the media seems to put things out there) that the majority of the foods recalled in the US because of food borne disease and pathogens are not meat, but vegetables. I’m not putting down veggies, they are just as important to your diet as all the other food groups. Honestly I just expected it to be a closer race between meat products and vegetables/vegetable products (like my favorite peanut butter). Huh. The things we learn.
Anyhow, enjoy exploring the I love Farmers website for yourself. Even if you are not a crazy Foodie or Aggie, it’s so well-organized and such an “easy-read” that surely you will find something you are glad you learned.