Farm Better and Feed the World…. Without Farmers?

Where's the beef...without ranchers?

Where’s the beef…without ranchers?

The New York Times is putting on a “Food for Tomorrow: Farm Better. Eat Better. Feed the World” conference in NY next month. This is a great idea – we all need to think more about our food choices and how we’re going to produce enough food to supply the population in 40 years time, when we’re predicted to have another 2-3 billion mouths to feed.

So just as a debate on the future of healthcare would include presentations from doctors and surgeons; or a discussion about how education could be improved would showcase teachers and lecturers; this conference is going to feature farmers, meat processors and animal and crop scientists, right?

No. Firstly, we have Michael Pollan, author and journalism professor, famous for the suggestion that if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it. Looks like quinoa, gnocchi and beignets are off the lunch menu? When participating in a recent radio panel discussion with Mr. Pollan it was frightening to note how uninformed he appeared to be about the realities of livestock production versus the activist rhetoric (or indeed, the common courtesies of polite conversation).

Secondly, Danielle Nierenberg. I had the pleasure of being on a panel in Washington DC with Ms Nierenberg when she was still on-staff at HSUS. She was vehemently against the use of technology in livestock production and claimed that all housed or confined cattle were kept in filthy disease-ridden conditions. She further claimed that, contrary to the World Health Organization’s information on the topic, bird flu did not exist in small backyard poultry flocks in Asia and that biosecurity in large poultry operations was responsible for its spread.

Thirdly, a spokesman from the Union of Concerned Scientists. A pseudo-scientific organization that is opposed to so-called industrial agriculture, GMOs, antibiotic use in agriculture, agribusiness, the USDA nutrition guidelines…. the list goes on.

Amongst the remaining 14 speakers, there is a self-proclaimed activist, a chef, a politician, 3 reporters, 2 academics, and finally, two representatives from the retail sector – Panera Bread (known most recently for their “EZ-chicken” campaign which was rescinded after outrage amongst agricultural advocates) and Walmart. The sole representative of the farming community is an organic dairy producer with a herd of 85 Ayrshire cows from Wales.

I’m not suggesting that none of these people have valid opinions on how food should be produced – as consumers, we all do. However, the fact that conventional food producers and processors aren’t involved in the discussion makes me wonder whether this is simply an opportunity for those who most often criticize the current food system to shake each other’s hands, nod happily in agreement and make proclamations about how things “should be”, without discussing the practicality or feasibility of these solutions with those who farm the land and raise livestock every single day.

Almost inevitably, the conclusions coming out of this conference will be that you should reduce consumption of processed and conventionally-produced foods, and that if you are going to eat a small amount of meat, it should be organically-raised. That’s a beautiful shiny picture – I wonder what it will mean to the single mother trying to feed four children on a $10,000 salary; or the livestock producer who simply cannot make a living producing organic cattle?

Starvation isn’t sustainable for anybody – to feed the world in 2050 we need real solutions that improve crop and animal performance while reducing resource use. Solutions that are provided by farmers and ranchers working together with geneticists, nutritionists, consultants, veterinarians, crop scientists, soil scientists and meat scientists to improve the productivity of their farm.

To bastardize the old saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime; give a man a panel of 17 food “experts” and you’ll feed him for…..?” Cynically, I’d suggest the answer may be less than one meal.

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If Food is the New Religion, Who is the New Messiah?

During the last census in England, there was a social media campaign to persuade people who did not identify with a particular religion, to state “Jedi Knight” in the “religious persuasion” section of the forms. If enough people cited it, it would be officially considered as a religion.

The campaign failed, yet the picture at the top left made me think – just how many people would consider food or “foodieism” to be their religion nowadays? If we consider the concept of “faith” (definition: “complete trust or confidence in someone or something; strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof”), the church sign above appears to explain the behaviors of those who are opposed to specific food production systems or management practices. We can have conversations with the nay-sayers face-to-face, on social media, or even through NY Times competitions, yet if foodieism is a religion, are we wasting our time trying to change their minds with facts?

Fortunately, recent survey data suggests that 94% of consumers buy food on the basis of price, taste and nutrition; 4.4% buy according to lifestyle choices (e.g. organic, vegetarian, local) and only 1.7% are a “fringe” group who wish to prohibit management practices or technologies that have helped us make continuous improvements in food production over the years. Nonetheless, consumers within this small group are extremely vocal, skilled at influencing media and legislation and are devoted to advancing their cause.

Just ask any politician – we can make huge headway influencing the masses in the middle rather than spending time trying to convince a small group to believe in a cause that they are already opposed to. The question is, how do we do so, and how much should we spend time counteracting negative publicity rather than being proactive about food production? If we take the recent lean finely textured beef (LFTB aka. “pink slime”) furor as an example, how many consumers were made aware of the issue not because of negative publicity generated by the media, but because of the huge amount of pushback from our industry via social media? At what point does it make more sense to stay quiet and concentrate our efforts on other issues where we have a chance to move public opinion, rather than fighting losing battles?

Finally, if foodieism is the new religion, who is the new messiah? Michael Pollan, journalism professor preaching food rules and the omnivore’s dilemma? Joel Salatin, wild-eyed prophet of “herbivorous, mob-stocking, solar converting, lignified carbon sequestering, grass-based” systems? Or perhaps Wayne Pacelle, sharp-suited smooth-talker from HSUS? Are PETA billboards and demonstrations the forerunners of foodie door-to-door evangelism? Only time will tell.