Is agriculture at war? Mark Bittman thinks so. Bittman is a journalist, food writer, and author, who is an outspoken critic of US agriculture and the food industry. In a recent speech he said, “‘America feeds the world’ is a lame excuse to continuing the worst of industrial farming. Which means the abuse of land water animals, labor, and everything involved. There is a war here. A war of worldviews, tactics, and strategy. And for those of us in the food movement the fact that there is a war, the fact that we are finally about to force powerful industry leaders to listen, is a really good thing.” So now you know, the people who eat food have declared war on the people who produce it.
Before you run out and start digging a bunker in back of your barn, keep in mind that Bittman is an extremist. He is a loud mouth blowhard, whose popularity and career depend on him saying shocking, divisive, inflammatory things — most of which are not true. His views do not represent the majority of people who consider themselves in the food movement. He is, however, right about one thing: the leaders of agriculture and agribusiness are beginning to listen to consumers.
Much of agriculture has, for the most part, ignored the food movement. We knew they were wrong about agriculture and their views did not represent those of mainstream consumers. But as consumers have begun to ask questions about their food supply, it has been the food movement that has had their ear. “The food movement has portrayed farmers and the crops they grow and the companies that serve them as the villains in the drama of climate change, obesity, and poverty,” said Jim Blome, President and CEO of Bayer Crop Science. At the recent Ag Issues Forum, he said there are several core believes that are held by most in the food movement, “They include big is bad; only local is sustainable; and ‘back then’ is better than innovation and technology.”
This set of values is unique to food. As Blome observed, the same people who will stand in line all day for the latest iPhone from Apple, one of the biggest and richest corporations in the world, would rather have their food grown on a farm with a team of mules. He added that agriculture needs to figure out how to impact this mindset. Blome believes that dialogue and engagement is the key. He said Bayer research has shown that a significant segment of consumers want stricter food regulations and food produced without pesticides.
With technology and innovation, farmers can deliver what consumers want while still producing an abundant, safe, and affordable food supply. That is a story we in agriculture need to share with consumers and with the influencers to whom people listen.
We will never change the opinions of professional fear mongers like Mark Bittman and others who profit from the continued war of words so prevalent in the food movement. Farmers and the companies that serve them must address consumer concerns and explain why we do what we do to produce food and how we can and can’t change to address the concerns of today’s food consumer. It is time for an armistice in the food war.
By Gary Truitt