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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  • Dr

    Hmmmm many consumers do have a good idea of what Big Ag stands for and decided that pumping fertilizer into the soil and the groundwater and that spraying endocrine disrupters onto the food and into the environment was not something they supported. So they voted by buying food that was not bathed in substances that they do not trust. Let alone not wanting to trust the people who had mislead them all these years and said that chemicals and corporations had their best interest in mind.

    “The customer is alway right “ if you start out by saying how uneducated they are perhaps that is also part of the problem or having so much “proprietary “ knowledge or so many trade secrets that people don’t trust what they are selling. Food is social, it is meant to be shared…something Big Ag forgot a long time ago.

  • richard

    Perhaps Mr. Lusk could explain to us how such productivity and efficiency can lead to $23B USD of life support for agriculture each and every year……with the largest farms receiving up to $900,000.00 each. Now that’s a romantic notion only apocryphal spine numbing repetition can sustain in American agribiz mythology….. The unpretty local food his ancestors had to endure, probably tasted like real food, was toxin free, produced without debt and was affordable because it didn’t cost them a thing….. except the pleasure of being independent, self sufficient entrepeneurs….. American agriculture is a troubled culture, starving for meaning…..obese with its own sense of self importance…..and no answers except more of the same……And we call this progress???

    • Harold

      The $23 billion and more prevents the consumer from gaining the knowledge that GMO is at the same price or at a much greater price than organic is. The consumer is paying for their food with both hands; the tax wallet hand and the cash wallet hand and the consumer believes that the government has done them some sort of favor – while the corporate runs off with their savings and dollars. and the dollars that they scooped from the producers. The corporate Elite never seem to be trapped in the debt circle without the taxpayer bailing them out. What do the tax payers owe the corporations that we would pay their debt from our wallet? Is that another favor they are giving us? It would seem that without all of their “favors” we would have more cash in our wallets and with that cash we would be able to favor ourselves. Slavery works in mysterious ways, doesn’t it?

  • ed

    This article is a fully loaded agronomic package, which is basically code words for a complete crock of organic fertilizer to put it more polite like. Wow! An industry built on a house of cards containing the “Jokers” from every single Big Ag Companies Blackjack boardroom tables. Big business screwing all the farmers out of every single thing including their roots and identities. The more you go down that trail the more consumer resistance you get. The big companies want to steal and sell not only the produce but the romantic stories behind them. You are to beleive the romance is dead and gone, but they will resurrect that notion and sell that romantic stuff to the customer. Don’t beleive it? Aunt Jamima comes to mind. They do it all the time. There is so much tax payers money going into modern agriculture that those taxpayers should be a tiny little bit upset. They are coming to get your land guys. They are going to get it eventually for a decent price and pay for it all with your off farm income, your wifes job, your school buse driving job, your free labor and your Grandfathers blood, sweat and tears and the difference between a fair price for your wares and the price that you now get. Slow but sure wins the race, right! Every time!

  • Nik Maloney

    The whole article was garbage but the last quote really got me. Local food was, is and always will be the mark of a healthy food system. It ensures accountability and keeps the local economy going. I’ll take my farm raised animals products and local produce over coffee, tropical fruit, chocolate, sugar or anything else you can think of. Consumers are continuing to see the advantages of local environmentally enhancing agriculture and I’ll continue to steer them that way!


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