The big picture: Virtual views of sustainable farming

IF ONLY IT WERE THAT SIMPLE

A RECENT EDITORIAL in the National Post recalled the Spring of 1989, when actress Meryl Streep whipped American parents into a frenzy, claiming children eating apples were at risk of cancer because the fruit was supposedly “contaminated” with chemical growth regulator Alar.  Although later proven to be without any scientific basis, the Alar uproar, supported by CBS show 60 Minutes, resulted in such extreme behavior as parents chasing down their child’s school bus to retrieve apples out  of lunchboxes. 

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, President of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), helped to calm public fears back then, referring to Ms. Streep as an “actress suddenly turned toxicologist.”  Whelan chastised the American public for being gullible, saying:  “What this nation needs is a national psychiatrist!”  Regardless, the incident helped to entrench the public view that farmers’ use of technology is “bad.”

Fast forward to 2009:  in a bizarre twist on art imitating life, Meryl Streep, having just portrayed the late Julia Child in the movie Julie & Julia, criticized chef Child in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, claiming that her high-fat, protein-rich cuisine caused heart disease in America.  She calls Child “a pawn of big business,” and refers to Whelan’s ACSH as “a front for agricultural and petrochemical interests.”   

Whelan, in response to Streep’s outburst points out that Julia Child was full of common sense, “despised people who demonize specific foods, like meat, butter and sugar” and “loathed activists who terrified people about the safety of food.” 

Despite twenty years passing, and North American agriculture groups’ significant efforts to bridge the urban-rural divide, popular media abounds with questions about modern agriculture and food systems. 

Time magazine ran an article on August 21, entitled ‘Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food.’  It touches on many concerns apparently stirred by the 2008 documentary Food Inc., Michael Pollan’s 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and even Michelle Obama’s organic White House garden.   

The Time article claims that modern farming is destroying the environment and causing America’s obesity epidemic.  Food safety, government subsidies for crop production, overuse of fertilizer, water contamination, animal confinement, antibiotic use, factory farms, animal waste, and Americans’ high-protein, high fat diets are all cited  as symptoms. 

“Demand for meat and poultry worldwide is set to rise 25 percent by 2015 — but soils exhausted, the earth can no longer deliver,” says the writer, extolling “ranchers and farmers who are raising sustainable food in ways that don’t bankrupt the earth.”  The article’s online version includes photo essays of organic farmers, and eBay’s corporate chef, whose “sustainable circle” menus are “high taste and low carbon with less meat, which helps the environment and health.”  Chef says he is creating “a supply chain that is truly sustainable, that doesn’t take more from the Earth than it leaves behind – and that tastes really, really good.”  

In a follow-up interview with meatingplace.com about methods he used to research the Time story, writer Bryan Walsh was asked why he hadn’t interviewed any farmers in the process.  His response:  “All I would say is, in no way did I want the story to be seen as anti-farmer or anti-food. In many ways I was hoping to … put more emphasis on food, let’s look at it that way. In the rhetoric that can be lost, and I hope that’s not the case in the future.”

It may be tempting to dismiss such coverage and outspoken celebrity as hype and idealism eclipsing common sense.  But it’s important for farmers to understand the lens through which our urban neighbors are viewing food production issues.  Only then will we find clues to how we may be able to turn around the apparent disconnect and try to find some mutually beneficial common ground. 

Taking a cue from the “No drama Obama – stop the shouting” approach to erasing deep divides between cultural groups, and capitalizing on online social networking’s potential to help us engage in “conversations, not campaigns,” perhaps those of us in agriculture can find better ways to re-connect with the other 98 percent of society. •