The following editorial first appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.
Panelists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln offered some truths about science, emotion, the media and food that should be taken to heart in farm country.
The basic message delivered from different angles is that modern agriculture needs to do a better job of presenting itself to the world.
That includes making better use of new media like Twitter, but it’s more than that.
As more than one panelist at the Heuermann Lecture said, producers should be willing to listen, to be transparent with consumers and to step forward to let their faces be their brands.
Too often, the reaction in farm country has been to try to shut out consumers, using tactics like “ag-gag” laws with new criminal penalties for crusaders who trespass on farmland.
Meanwhile, the famous Chipotle video on YouTube titled “The Scarecrow” about factory farms has more than 13.6 million views.
It espouses the same values as those popularized by Alice Waters, chef, author and activist who says that “eating is a political act,” and who asserts that “Every single choice we make about food matters, at every level. The right choice saves the world.”
To those immersed in the day-to-day of modern agriculture, that might sound like laughable hyperbole that no one should take seriously. Nonetheless, those values are being embraced by urban populations.
“We continue to try to speak science," said Kevin Murphy of Food Chain Communications, "while other people are taking things like emotion, wrapping it in a little bit of science, and they are making a lot more progress at diminishing agriculture and modern food production than we are at building it up.”
In the entertainment culture, non-science-based arguments can flourish and snowball into a movement, said Ronnie Green, NU vice president for agriculture and natural resources.
In an essay, “Shut up and eat -- a foodie repents,” in the Nov. 3 New Yorker, John Lanchester traces his evolving views on food. Acknowledging his own fondness for fresh, local and seasonal food, Lanchester writes, the “world population, according to United Nations, is heading for a total just below 11 billion by century’s end. We can manage this, probably, but we can’t do so without industrial agriculture.”
Retreating to rural fortresses where consumers are banned won’t work, as appealing as it might seem to producers to work without bother from outside.
American farmers and ranchers need to embrace the notion that they need to explain themselves openly and honestly to modern consumers who probably have never been on farm or touched a live cow or chicken.
The dialogue is vigorous, attitudes and values are being shaped, markets are evolving. Agricultural producers need to participate.