Several readers and friends have sent me links to the now-infamous-in-ag-circles article in the current issue of Time, "Getting Real About the High Cost of Cheap Food" by Bryan Walsh. The introductory paragraphs should give you the gist.
Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won't bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he'll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That's the state of your bacon — circa 2009.In addition, I gather some farm organizations are urging members to fire angry letters to Time expressing their outrage.
OK, that's one response. But from my point of view, it's a mistake - possibly a big one.
In fairness, I suppose my reaction is somewhat disappointingly tame because I have been reading the food movement literature for years now, and this article is really nothing new. I think many farm readers (or more likely, non-readers) simply had not run across these arguments yet because they are less interested in viewpoints outside agriculture.
So after following Pollan, et. al, and websites like The Atlantic Food Channel, I simply saw it as more of the same. And I have not seen a huge effect on product movement in the interim.
With that disclaimer, I still think producers would be wise to think before choosing angry confrontation.
First, we need to make sure we understand the climate for public discourse right now. It's about emotion. Period. Take a look at town meetings or climate change debate or (ugh) political talk shows. Is there any evidence carefully reasoned economic arguments will sway in the slightest people angry about keeping hog lagoons? At the very least we should consider postponing this sqaubble until we're on the other side of health care reform, recession, and climate change.
And what pray tell are we going to respond to such articles with? Read the words. Like much of anti-industrial farm screeds they marshal facts and even more opinion from credible experts (with whom we disagree, but they still get to have a say, right?), much of which is plainly true: we do clip beaks and dock tails, we do keep sows in crates and calves in the dark - we can't really say we don't.
We also need to count noses. There are a few thousand of us industrial producers, many more agrarian producers who disagree with our practices and millions of consumers who love pets. We'd better hope we don't push things to a vote. Prop 2 should ring a bell.
It could be staunch public responses are the best answer to such legislative nightmares, but most folks I talk to in places like MI and OH where real work is being done prefer quiet negotiation to media wrangling to counter this threat. Frankly, I think we are vastly overestimating our clout with the populace on this issue, and pushed too far, could sour support for all kinds of unrelated public sympathy. For example, lots of exposure to industrial production may swicth a few votes on payment limits to aid more sympathetic figures like small farmers.
One really important problem agriculture hasn't faced up to is how different are our sensibilities compared to consumers. While we moan about how people don't know where their food comes from, it seldom crosses our minds how many years of acclimation it took us to develop our detachment from killing animals for food. Folks don't know where pork chops come from, and if you think you're going to make them comfortable with the facts in one clever ad or brief explanation you are sorely misled, I think. Try it on one person just to see the depth of the problem.
But we are badly mistaken in agriculture if we think the cry "It keeps food cheap!" will silence such outcry. Angry responses will only fire up the opposition even more, IMHO. We can see that all around us. The free-floating animosity in the air will likely produce a vastly disproportionate response, and rapid escalation that can only damage our bottom lines.
Most importantly, there is little indication the animal-rights/food conscience movements are much of an economic threat. Sales of meat, for example are reeling not from a mass shift to veganism but drastically lower incomes and no exports. Meanwhile we can't put hamburger out fast enough. In fact, I suspect one reason we are seeing more vitriolic language assailing industrial production is the immense pressure other methods have fallen prey to. From farmer markets to free-range chicken, hard pressed consumers are downshifting to low-priced products in droves.
Indeed, organic and other process-defined foods have fallen on hard times and are losing market share. Given this dollars and sense reality, what do we hope to gain in the marketplace with calling more attention to our methodology by allowing the media to egg us on into a public battle? It's all downside from my perspective.
Indeed, the great risk here is a quasi-political mudfight that will encourage more vigilante video of slaughterhouses and manure handling. If you have not grasped how tenuous the public ability to discriminate between food animals and companion animals, see the viewer comments on petting zoos from recent USFR shows.
Ag has caught on to the power of viral video. I know because the clip of a top EPA official having a beauty-pageant-question moment during her Congressional testimony on land use calculations for ethanol was forwarded to me by multiple sources. Yet we still don't seem to grasp how silent video of many animal production practices could repulse the vast majority. Folks, meat production is gross. We're just de-sensitized.
In short, if we're not getting savaged at the meat counter, why not listen attentively and act with caution, rather than descend into yet another unwinnable name-calling hysteria.
Oddly, it would appear most people are able to exist with a wide disconnect between killing animals and eating steak. Laying aside dietary issues for another time, I think allowing consumers some room to be ignorant about food production is a good thing. With the nation on edge from a zillion other economic and social conflicts, much of that ill will could spill over to their grocery carts if we draw too much attention.
Shouting at a handful of detractors will only invite more scrutiny than our customers really want or we can withstand.
Listen to the critics, sort through and find their core angers, recognize the truths scattered within, and monitor their traction. But taking arms against a sea of troubles is not the answer. Going to war with customers is a violation of rational marketing.