Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Dear Farmers and Ranchers:
A couple of weeks ago during the Grammys (yeah, I know, the Oscars were yesterday), Chipotle aired a short with a cover of Willie Nelson singing Coldplay’s “The Scientist.” (See above.)
The twittersphere went nuts. While Whitney Houston death may have brought the Academy together, it was Chipotle’s ad that stole people’s hearts. Even Fox News (yes, FOX NEWS!) praised it saying:
“...while people may dream of animals roaming free before being taken to slaughterhouses, in reality, most meat comes from animals held in cramped cages their entire lives, pumped full of drugs and food that plumps them up in a short amount of time.”

            While food activists were delighted to see such support against factory farming, you farmers and ranchers…were uh…I’ll let you speak for yourselves.

“Is it really correct to characterize larger farms as ‘factory farms’ that mistreat animals if they are housed in barns protected from inclement weather?”

“There are so many things wrong with the picture painted in the Chipotle Grammy commercial (this commercial has been out for awhile, just not on T.V.) that I don't know where to start.” - Crystal Cattle

“You don’t have the slightest clue about what goes on on family farms.”

“Words like ‘disappointed’, ‘grossly distorted’, ‘misrepresentation’, ‘fiction’, ‘mis-characterization’ filled my streams.” Cris from GOODEness Gracious

“Commercial farmers will have to decide whether we can withstand public opprobrium while continuing to efficiently produce the world’s most essential good or join the entertainment industry, selling expensive pork chops with heaping sides of nostalgia.”- Blake Hurst, President of Missouri Farm Bureau in NYTimes op-ed

            Well, I might not agree with the opinions, I do understand the sentiments. Most farmers and ranchers I talk to say that that animal welfare is their first and foremost concern. And I do believe that for the most part, they are sincere. But what about consumers? As seen with the outpouring of support for Chipotle as well as outrage directed at CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), consumers are not so convinced. In fact one study, by consulting firm Deloitte, asked consumers “"Are you more concerned than you were five years ago about the food you eat?" Seventy-three percent of respondents said, “yes.”[1]
            This of course is nothing new. The food scandals of the 1910’s were in good part due to the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Several food borne illnesses, starting with the Jack-in-the-Box E. Coli deaths have made the public even more wary of industrial food products of any kind. You paint people like me as organic food-Nazis, but there’s a reason why we’re scared. We see strawberries carrying 54 different pesticides loads that cause a whole range of diseases and developmental disorders.  rBGH or rbST(or recombinant bovine growth hormone) was a commonly given to cows to increase their milk output, until a public outcry forced dairy to stop using it.[2] And then there’s the GMO debate…
            One might ask, well, what does this have to do with farmers? It has everything to do with farmers. You raise the food we eat everyday. What affects the quality and the safety of our food sources is of inherent interest to a society. Why? Because we consumers eat it.
            Although I would like to see more regulation in food and nutrition awareness and better environmental regulation, I realize these things take time – and should be open to debate. That’s what most of us who are interested in food activism really want: An open and honest debate about how food is made, distributed, marketed and sold in this country. And farmers and ranchers are key in making this happen. How are we to achieve this? Let me count the ways…
1. Transparency. Why transparency? Because the basis of any good policy is contingent upon having all opinions heard. And you can’t form any critical opinions without having the proper information at hand. I realize farms are suspicious of muckraking journalists looking for piles of dung to fling onto headlines, but are ag-gag rules really the way to deal with this problem? Maybe the better way is to open farms for inspection. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. And better yet, unlike the many food activists who have oodles of media resources, maybe you’ll get a chance to tell your side of the story about farming or ranching. You will get to complicate a picture that often gets over-simplified by media sources that don’t know squat about farming. You don’t want your story co-opted? Tell it yourself.
2. But DON’T sugarcoat the truth. No one likes a snow job. No, I don’t mean this as an underhanded way of getting ammunition for animal rights groups or environmentalists. As tempting as it would be to show bucolic pictures of happy cows roaming the green pastures or fields of wheat gently waving in the breeze, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Farming is a rough job. No vacations. No sick days. And it’s risky and dangerous.[3] Showing people these idealized images of farms won’t get them to understand the realities of farming, and in fact, in the end will undermine your profession. By romanticizing farming, you really set up a series of unrealistic expectations that can NEVER be met, no matter how organic, sustainable or green the farm is. Instead explain the realities of the job – we’ll be a lot more sympathetic. Believe me.
3. Economics. While most people get the basics of economics when it comes to their household or the nation’s debt, trying to explain the economics of farming or ranching has many a city mouse screaming “Get me an accountant!!!” Part of problem with our food system is a contradiction in consumer habits: we want safe food, but we want it cheap. And as any economist can tell you, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The margins for farming and ranching are razor thin.[4] Much of the justification that farmers have for concentrated feed operations and other practices comes down to economics and markets. You want consumers to understand that process? Break down the numbers. Just as most of us want to see how our food is sourced…we should also see how much those processes cost. [5]
4. Blame the food industry – NOT the consumer. I hate to say it, but if you farmers should be furious, you should be placing your blame DIRECTLY on the food industry. They’re the ones that are forcing you to have bad husbandry practices. Why do you need to put antibiotics into your chickens? Because with KFC only paying your $0.30 for chickens that goes into their buckets, any lost chicken is lost revenue.[6] If you want to make money dealing with food and meat processors, you’re screwed – because they hold all the cards. If you want to sell to them, you have to follow their rules, which aren’t cheap, animal-friendly or sustainable. And that also means going big, because the only way to make a profit (if you’re lucky) is through economy of scale. Small time livestock holders never had a chance.
And it’s not just for livestock. Monsanto? They have 93% of the soybean market and 80% of the corn market.[7] They also bought vegetable seed company Seminis in 2005 – Seminis held 40% of the vegetable seed market (corn, peppers, lettuce just to name a few) making Monsanto the largest seed owner in the world.[8] And there’s that thing about Roundup. They sell you Roundup to get rid of weeds. But the problem was that crops couldn’t tolerate Round-up after planting. [9] But lo and behold. Monsanto had an answer for that too. Roundup ready corn and soybean – at triple the price of conventional seed ($130 for conventional corn vs. $400 for Roundup Ready corn). But it’s too late…you’re hooked on the seed and the herbicide. Never mind it’s really expensive. Never mind that the yields are not necessarily better than conventional (the jury is still out on that one). Never mind the environmental consequences of Roundup-resistant weeds as well as genetic transference (but don’t worry, I’m sure Monsanto will have a solution for that too)… [10]
In short, they’re using YOU to make millions while you get NADA. We consumers get that. But what makes consumers confused is when the food industry uses YOUR image to defend their practices. We can’t help but conflate the farmer with industry and their bad practices. Cut the Gordian knot and free yourself.
The truth is, we all need each other. We can’t eat if don’t have farmers. Farmers can’t survive without consumers. I know all you farmers have been saying, “Talk with us, not AT us.” A lot of us are trying. But we need your help. And Willie Nelson's too. Give us something to work with and we'll work with you. It's a start and that's what matters.


[1] The Deloitte study and survey can be found here:
[2] Just in case you didn’t know this (non-ag people), rGBH was made by…Monsanto.
[3] US Bureau of Labor Statistics cites that farming is one of the most dangerous jobs out there – about 12 times as dangerous as the “average” job (click here for the link). I’ve seen it. My brother used to be a doctor at the University of Iowa. The amount of crazy farm related injuries from farm equipment were astounding.
[4] More so for small farms. Small farms make up 88% of all farms in the US, but only make 34% of production. Large farms are 9% of the total of farms, yet make 66% of production value.
[5] By the way, consumers are willing to pay higher prices for safer food. According to a Pew survey, two-thirds of Americans would be willing pay more for it. As to what “safer” means, is up to debate, but I bet you for most people, that would include pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, etc. Furthermore, 75% would be willing to pay one to three percent more for safer food. Food industries are not off the hook. Seventy percent of respondents said that food companies should pay $1000 to offset food safety costs.
[8] Monsanto has been sued by the DuPont, it’s rival, for antitrust violations (the enemy of my enemy is my friend). The Department of Justice has also investigated Monsanto for their monopolization of the seed market.
[9] Point of clarification: For farmers, the beauty of Roundup was that it could be placed directly onto the ground and be just left there without consideration of the crops’ or weeds’ lifecycles. It saved a lot of work. One caveat though – you can only spray Roundup before planting – not AFTER.
[10] The obvious discussion here is about GMO. It’s a discussion that is so complicated (and contentious) that it won’t fit a 1500 word essay, much less a book…or two. I’m against GMO mainly for environmental risk reasons, but this is not the point of this essay...
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