Romanticized notions of farming misleading

The agri-food industry often gets a bad rap in the popular media, but that doesn’t mean proponents shouldn’t remain engaged.

In fact, the opposite is true, according to Purdue University economist Jayson Lusk.

“The prevailing message from the food movement is not one of being thankful but one of the food system being broken,” he told the Future of Food event held at the University of Guelph Nov. 6.

“We have to do what work we can to make people understand we care about their welfare and interests.”

Iris Joye of the U of G’s food science department said during a panel discussion that transparency is crucial when dealing with technology.

“When technologies fail, I think you need to be open to the public,” she said.

“There should be open discussion on the pros and cons.”

Joye also emphasized the need for clear communication using language that the average high school student can grasp and the importance of pursuing the type of research that benefits consumers.

U of G economist Michael von Massow said it’s important to get technology right by avoiding any potential pitfalls in the first place, which is a significant challenge for policymakers.

When there are failures with either technology or regulatory policy, the skepticism that people have for science and the food industry will only grow.

“Part of it is being willing to say when we’re wrong and admit it,” he said.

Lusk emphasized the trade-offs that may exist when a new technology is introduced. Prompted by other questions during the discussion, he eventually agreed with the idea that an open dialogue is necessary.

Von Massow also touched on the subject of technological trade-offs.

“It’s easy to say, ‘yes, there are all sorts of trade-offs.’ It easy to say, ‘you cannot have a conversation at all,’ ” he said.

“We have a responsibility to participate in the discussion, even if we don’t get a lot of traction at the beginning.”

There was general agreement that many consumers lack even a basic understanding about how food is produced, whether that involves technologies used 50 years ago or those of today.

Lusk also talked about the public’s poor understanding of the farming community, including the demographics.

In the United States, there are 160,000 farming operations responsible for most of the food produced.

He said that kind of efficiency is good for the environment.

On the environmental front, advances in both crops and livestock have been profound. More food per acre is being produced, and it takes fewer animals to produce the same amount of meat.

It’s also recognized that countries with higher levels of agricultural productivity are better able to meet the dietary requirements of their citizens.

“Our food system today is not perfect, but it’s the best system that we’ve ever had, to date,” Lusk said.

Von Massow agreed.

“The story we have to tell is a profound opportunity,” he said.

“There’s more choice today than there has ever been.”

Lusk said the reality of our agricultural heritage in North America is a far cry from how it is often romanticized by today’s food activists who support things such as local sourcing and organic production methods.

To emphasize his point, he showed a photograph of his father and other relatives who were living a hard-scrabble existence on a farm in the Texas panhandle.

“They all ate local food. That’s all they could afford. It wasn’t a pretty picture.”

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