Posted By Cathryn August 23, 2012
Sometimes, it is easy to lump people into a broad category. Elitist or plebian. Enviro-hippie or pollution-spewing Hummer nut. Midwestern bumpkin or coastal snob. While these labels make for a quick, easy way to write off people to whom we would prefer not listen, they do not account for our incredible ability as human beings to become deeper, more complex individuals. .
Two starkly different articles published this week on the role of farmers in modern America illustrated the importance of transformatory voices and the shared stories of people who have taken on unexpected roles can add nuance and insight to the national dialogue. A dialogue which, particularly in this election year, has grown shallow, partisan and generally uninformed.
Mark Bittman, a New York Times writer known more for his exquisite palate than economic aptitude, took on the state of U.S. farming from the viewpoint of a frequent diner at Manhattan’s upscale eateries. Lamenting the inability of the general public to find the boutique produce his beloved celebre-chefs spend days chasing down, he boldly proposes overhauling all of agriculture to more closely resemble his Utopian vision. In Bittman’s America, everyone not only has seasonal access to the products he enjoys, which notably must not include a good steak, but also has the time and skill to lovingly coax them into gourmet dishes. The farmers whom he deems “real” likewise coax the finest heirloom tomatoes and leafy kale from one or two acres of land. He argues that that this will employ more Americans, who he presumes wish to be farmers, and will provide healthier food for all, with food stamp programs to help us all afford his posh produce.
A knee-jerk response would be to trash all intellectuals, painting them wish a broad brush as cluelessly out-of-touch with the vast majority of Americans who refuse to pay thirty bucks for a cup of soup, let alone spend countless hours in attempts to emulate it at home. Although tempting, this adds nothing to the dialogue.
Victor Davis Hanson does. In his Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Hanson writes the prose equivalent of an ode to the farmers who persevere in this year’s drought. Speaking of the character of the people who stand tall while the drought beats down upon them, Hanson champions crop insurance and agricultural productivity. A writer from California’s abundant heartland who grew up on a farm, he knows that of which he speaks.
“The mystery isn’t that we have devastating droughts like this summer’s, but that so few Americans manage to produce so much food against such daunting odds,” he explains, noting this view comes from personal experiences with his family’s raisin farm.
Eloquently weaving in references to ancient Greek philosophy, Hanson provides a look at the farmer that many would rarely see. Having more experience on the farms of California than Kansas, Hanson’s view of the farmer and modern productivity could grow with further study into the importance of ethanol, but why throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater?
Hanson says something that, particularly in this hot, volatile climate, ALL farmers need to hear. You are appreciated. Facing a natural disaster of historic proportions, he voices the support that most Americans feel for the men and women who feed them.
Conversely, Bittman also offers a valuable lesson, particularly when contrasted with Hanson. It is vital that American farmers create an open dialogue about what they do. Farmers already have an amazing story. They live it every day. In sharing it, they foster a cooperative, positive environment, something that should be valued in these divisive times.
One thing is for certain. If Manhattan’s elite chefs take charge of this conversation, a seriously skewed version of reality may gain a foothold. It would be a shame. We should celebrate reality; we should work to show the strong, resilient spirit behind modern ag innovation.
At NCGA, we have been doing this for many years. For those with most interest in learning about the abundance and, yes, diversity, of American agriculture, we offer links to:
Posted By Cathryn August 20, 2012
Hypocrisy has a strange way of coming to light during campaign season. For candidates and for ballot initiatives alike, the incongruent motivations of the groups promoting a particular vote often tanks what, at first glance, seemed to be a positive, simple campaign. A ruling last week clarifying the ballot language to be used on California Proposition 37, the GMO-labeling law, brought the hypocritical intentions of the measures proponents to the forefront.
Simply, Prop. 37 backers claim consumers have a right to know if the food they purchase contains any ingredients which have been genetically modified. Playing off public fears of the unknown, they appeal to mass hysteria instead of the reasoned, scientific judgment of relevant authorities, including the World Health Organization and American Medical Association, that genetically engineered crops pose no health risk.
On the surface, the claims of those supporting the labeling-measure appear to be about consumer rights. From early on in the campaign, it became apparent this measure was different, as it would base a mandatory food label on something for an unscientific reason. Now, it appears these agenda-driven niche market proponents have masked another troubling provision with their consumer rights costume.
The labeling mandated in this proposition actually does not only target genetically modified ingredients, it also targets any processed food, even those without GE ingredients. In addition to the new labels, these supposed champions of the people would ban any processed food, regardless of what is actually in it, from claims of being “natural.”
Could this actually add to consumer confusion and hurt farmers? Yes, it most certainly could.
In a recent Farm Press interview, one California olive oil producer explained that, even though genetically modified olives do not even exist, his oils would no longer be able to be labeled as “natural” simply because the olives were processed into oil.
Does this seem a bit over the top to anyone? Or is anyone even paying attention?
If there is not a greater public outrage forming over situations like these, the later seems more probable. Which is troubling because, on its very surface, proponents of the labeling measure have cloaked it in the nearly sacred robes of a consumer’s right to information. Underneath those shiny garments lies something far less glorious, a regulation that would mandate the use of labels that would confuse and mislead shoppers.
If no one is paying attention now, how can they possibly be expected to understand what exactly they see should this pass? Seemingly, Yes on 37 campaigners hope that they pay just as little attention then.
Posted By Cathryn August 15, 2012
While reading convoluted media accounts of the droughts impact on any number of issues and hearing forceful statements about farming that have little, if any, basis in reality, one very simple piece of advice comes to mind. The smartest thing that someone can do is to admit what they don’t actually know.
Third-hand accounts and rampant rumors spread through poorly edited media accounts or completely unedited social media rants often form the basis for many people’s perceptions of food and farming. The overwhelming majority of the U.S. population finds itself unable to personally interact with an industry that, although vital to life, it has been removed from for generations.
Treading metaphorical water in an attempt to keep up with daily challenges, well-intentioned, intelligent men and women may forget the source of their viewpoint yet ardently support the behaviors stemming from it.
Farmers have come out and opened their gates wide in an effort to share a slice of their lives and a glimpse into how the food on our nation’s table actually came to be. Be it through a campaign such as the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the Corn Farmers Coalition or CommonGround, farmers have mobilized in an unprecedented manner to start a national conversation about the food that they grow and the profession they love.
Where does the conversation start? It starts by finding a common understanding between the people who grow food and those who buy it on what each group honestly does not know about the other.
To help lay groundwork for this dialogue, CommonGround spoke with moms across the country about feeding their families. The results show that even active, concerned parents may still have questions.
These questions can create a lot of guilt. From the nutritional value of organic foods to who actually grows food at all, real decisions are being made out of guilt that, upon closer examination, has no basis in the reality of modern agriculture. The choices can cost real dollars and cause real stress.
The solution is real conversation.
Take a moment to see if myths and misinformation cause unnecessary stress for your family or someone you know. Then, take a deep breath and relax.
Farm moms worry about what they feed their families too. They know how stressful trying to provide the best for your children can be. They want to do the same thing.
Then, take another moment to check out how these farmers want to help families across the country eat fearlessly. Literally walking consumers through what they do, the volunteers of CommonGround share what they do on their farms and explain why they do it.
An open, honest conversation about food is underway. The smartest thing that everyone can do is admit that both sides can learn so much from one another. Together, we can all become smarter about food and grow a healthier tomorrow.
Posted By Cathryn July 30, 2012
Can you imagine the feeling of waking up in the morning and realizing that it would be 13 months before you got another paycheck? The drought has farm families across the Midwest pondering just that as relentlessly hot, dry conditions turn the nation’s heartland from a breadbasket into an oven.
In a recent story from Voice of America, DuBois, Ill. farmer Alan Bowers Jr. explained what many family farmers in the central and southern Corn Belt feel as they watch the crop that they invested time, sweat and money in this spring wilt. Blowing away, the corn becomes part of the dust that normally yields the most abundant crop in the world.
Using a simple, yet eloquent analogy, DuBois compared his corn and soybean crop to a paycheck. Drawing on this common idea, he places in stark perspective how dire the situation facing many farm families may seem.
This candid look at farming stands in contrast to the multitude of mainstream news stories promoting the fallacious idea that farmers do not care about the crop. The emotional toll of seeing hard work wither due to circumstances well beyond human control aside, crop insurance ensures that family farmers like DuBois can make ends meet until the next season. It ensures that natural disasters do not cause our nation’s agricultural sector to disintegrate.
Crop insurance places exists because Americans value their abundant, affordable, safe supply of food and the farm families who produce it. Americans understand the integral role these hard working individualists play in the fabric of our national character and in our economy. Maintaining their ability to farm next year when confronted with such enormous, unstoppable obstacles makes sense. Understanding their frustration in watching the crop slip away does too.
As drought conditions persist, remember that the people who grow food, the people who raise it and those who eat it all must endure these trying conditions together. Looking toward one another with understanding and compassion can ease the stress placed on one another, even if it cannot ease the stress placed on the crops.
Posted By Cathryn July 10, 2012
Lately, articles have flooded the internet claiming that the drought will cause food prices to skyrocket. Combining the idea that a wide variety of grocery items contain corn and the fact that the hot, dry weather has damaged the U.S. corn crop, they loudly announce their “expert” analysis. Obviously, food prices will go up soon.
Unfortunately, these “Einsteins” based their supposed economic analysis in incomplete, misconstrued facts. Those actually familiar with how food prices rise and fall have come to a very different conclusion.
The truth is simple, but it requires an understanding of agriculture and our nation’s food system, something few of these “experts” actually have.
Corn, and many other commodity crops, constitutes a small percentage of the price consumers pay at their local market. This means that even when the price of corn rises at the elevator or on the trading floor only a small fraction of the small increase in a small amount trickles into the foods American’s feed their families.
From the cost of slick marketing campaigns to the price of fuel, costs which may not be readily apparent to the alarmist authors actually drive food prices in this country.
America’s family farmers, the families who will truly feel the effects of the drought, will still provide the affordable, abundant food choices upon which the nation depends. The only cause for alarm here comes from the megaphone provided to megamouths who fan false flames in a highly combustible situation.
Posted By Cathryn June 28, 2012
As temperatures across the Midwest soar into the triple digits with little chance for rain or relief in sight, talking heads have started to blabber on again about how the drought will hit consumer’s wallets. Adding further pain to the heat-induced misery, these armchair economists stoke the fires of already burning financial concerns.
Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater may grab attention and cause alarm, but it is illegal to do so for a reason. Causing panic for the sake of causing panic does not have a public benefit.
A more cynical commentator might note that it does help drive rating and generate revenue. But instead of focusing on the fray, take a look at the facts.
According to a newly released study from National Public Radio’s Planet Money series, Americans today spend less on groceries than they did 30 years ago, nearly a full five percentage points less. Prices have declined across the board with some staple items, such as butter and chicken legs, down by 35 percent. Even a steak costs 30 percent less.
Will a drought impact America’s corn crop this year? Almost certainly. Does this spell dire circumstances that will leave the grocery consuming public taking out loans to feed their family with healthy, safe food? Almost certainly not.
In today’s America, what is truly in jeopardy is a sense of perspective. Banners flash before already stressed eyes on the evening news making dire declarations. Weary from battling real issues all day, these prophets of pain become an echoing chorus of doom drumming away basic sanity. Frantic feelings froth to a frenzy as the spiral of sustained stress with the prognosticators acting like an emotional succubus that feeds on America’s anxieties.
Stay calm. It may be hot outside, but cooler heads can prevail. Calmly, remember that America has the safest, most abundant, most affordable food supply in its history. The percentage of income needed to eat well has dropped to one of, if not the, lowest level in the developed world. Through innovation and hard work, farmers prove, time after time, that they can and will feed America, no matter what challenges they face.
Posted By Cathryn June 21, 2012
As temperatures rise and an array of fresh, vibrant produce options fills grocery baskets, the Environmental Working Group issued its annual summer scare list with this week. Deemed the “dirty dozen,” EWG again drags out its pseudoscience in the hopes of terrifying consumers, maligning nutritious foods and filling its coffers with donations from a frightened and misinformed public.
Almost any sound, reputable source stresses the incredibly important role that eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables plays in a healthy diet. Instead of promoting this, the EWG joins the ranks of similar charlatans who base fad diets on trendy tidbits. Based more in sound bites than sound science, the misinformation found in the list pushes well-intentioned eaters off track.
This year, ignore the EWG. Frankly, it annoys them more than engaging with them. Instead, consider the facts.
Farmers value food safety for the same reasons consumers do. The food from their farms feeds their families as well as yours. Regular moms and dads with the same concerns, farm families strive to bring a broad variety of safe, nutritious foods to their tables and yours.
True scientists, the kind who hold respected positions in academia or publish in peer reviewed journals, have stepped forward, speaking out against this fear-based, anti-ag propaganda. With prominent professors from University of California at Berkley leading the charge, real food safety experts deem the
EWG list an unscientific hype piece that actually has a detrimental effect on the conversation about food.
So be fearless about food and ditch the dirty dozen’s baseless babble. An open, honest conversation between the people who grow food and the people who buy it is building. Find out more by clicking here.
Posted By Cindy June 14, 2012
New York City Mayor Bloomberg seems intent upon transforming the “City that Never Sleeps” into the “City that Never Eats.”
The latest food banning proposal being considered by the New York City Council would limit sizes of treats like popcorn and milkshakes. They have already agreed to put the ban on large size sodas up for a public hearing July 24.
Mayor Bloomberg did away with trans fats in the city back in 2006. He also started the National Salt Reduction Initiative to “help food manufacturers and restaurants voluntarily reduce the amount of salt in their products.” Talking about the initiative in 2010, Bloomberg admitted that he likes salt. “I put salt on my popcorn — as a matter of fact, popcorn without salt is not popcorn,” was the quote.
Well, popcorn without more popcorn isn’t popcorn either!
There’s no doubt that movie theater concession sizes have more than super-sized over the last 20 years. I used to work at a movie theater in high school and our small popcorn was actually small and only cost 50 cents! The “small” sizes today were large sizes a couple of decades ago – but they cost a lot more.
Still, when families and groups of teenagers go to movie theaters together they often share large tubs of popcorn between them. When you divide a tub of popcorn between several people, it’s not that much. Will the New York City Council account for that? Will they just make it a law that you have to prove how many people are in your party to purchase a tub?
This is pure insanity. When I posted about the Salt Reduction Initiative two years ago, I used the following quote from a character in the movie “Demolition Man” who was speaking against the futuristic society that had bans on everything it considered “bad” for people:
I’m into freedom of speech and freedom of choice. I’m the kind of guy who likes to sit in a greasy spoon and wonder, “Gee, should I have the T-bone steak or the jumbo rack of barbecued ribs with the side order of gravy fries?” I WANT high cholesterol. I wanna eat bacon and butter and BUCKETS of cheese, okay? I want to smoke a Cuban cigar the size of Cincinnati in the non-smoking section. I want to run through the streets naked with green Jell-o all over my body reading Playboy magazine. Why? Because I suddenly might feel the need to, okay, pal? I’ve SEEN the future. Do you know what it is? It’s a 47-year-old virgin sitting around in his beige pajamas, drinking a banana-broccoli shake, singing “I’m an Oscar Meyer Wiener.”
Could we have a future with only banana-broccoli shakes for food? No super-sizes, of course.
Posted By Cathryn June 7, 2012
This election year, Americans are already growing increasingly agitated with pompous, self-important celebrities who feel an uncontrollable desire to pontificate upon politics. Qualified only by having played a politician in a made-for-TV movie or having co-written a B-side flop, these self-anointed bearers of the divine torch of celebri-smarts help us regular folk understand our mistaken, unworldly personal ponderings.
Honestly, who could take a multi-millionaire who plays dress-up for a living seriously when he or she banters on about the plight of the common folk? Did they learn about Main Street in a Method class?
Another group of sell-out celebrats, the chefs of cable TV, who not only feed actors but often host their own insightful television programs, want to tell average Americans how to think about the farm bill. In a letter proudly coordinated by the Environmental Working Group, intellectual icons including Mario Batali and Tom Colicchio trumpeted their opposition to big, rich commodity farms while wrapping themselves in the trendy terminology of the local, organic and environmental movements. As much as they criticize the Senate legislation, how many of these signers even read it?
To be frank, it seems a tad hypocritical to take the bully pulpit preaching a populist gospel while rubbing elbows with the sophomoric socialites who get a kick out of menus that offer greater detail about each truffle-decorated tapa than their letter offers about the world-changing policies proposed. It’s like they all live in Portlandia.
The only advice these elitist epicureans have the expertise to dish out pertains to the dishes in their ovens. Most Americans cannot afford to dine at their establishments; America cannot afford to bite into their half-baked policies.
Farmers feed us in a meaningful, sustainable fashion. So, call the trendy wannabes out for what they are and stand by a classic. America’s farm families need a farm bill now. America’s top chefs need a new hobby.
Posted By Cindy June 4, 2012
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may have denied a petition to officially change the name of high-fructose corn syrup to corn sugar, but the marketplace might just discover consumers actually like HFCS better.
After making a big deal two years ago about switching the recipe for Hunt’s Ketchup to include sugar instead of HFCS, ConAgra has apparently now quietly decided to switch back. According to Food Navigator-USA.com, ConAgra officials say consumer demand for the product was “not as strong as expected.” The company will continue to keep one line of ketchup, labeled as “all natural,” with sugar in place of HFCS.
The company has sent out no formal release on the change and Food Navigator USA gets the credit for breaking the story, although it means it’s not getting out there in the mainstream media. You would think that ConAgra would want to let consumers know that they are giving them back what they want.
Several other companies have created HFCS-free product lines while retaining original versions with HFCS, but ConAgra decided two years ago to make the switch for “every bottle” of ketchup. There can only be one reason why they are now going to offer one version with HFCS and one without – their sales must have dropped when they changed the recipe.
Go figure. We consumers are funny that way. We tend to buy what we like. So, perhaps if the food companies decide to create separate lines of products with and without HFCS they will find that consumers prefer the one that tastes the best.
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