Columbia forum highlights conflict between consumers and farmers

Sep 23, 2013

Chipotle’s controversial animated “The Scarecrow” video, which casts a dim eye on industrial agriculture, was criticized during a panel discussion at the Food Dialogues event in Columbia, Mo.
Credit Jeremy Bernfeld/Harvest Public Media

The disconnect between consumers wanting to know more about where their food comes from and farmers producing that food is nothing new to Harvest Public Media. But tensions between these two groups have ratcheted up lately, in part thanks to, as our own Peggy Lowe reported, videos like this one released by Chipotle, along with "ag-gag" bills and calls for labeling of genetically modified food.

It’s always interesting to see how the food production industry is working to bridge this perception chasm. The challenge was clear at the latest Food Dialogues event, presented by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance on Thursday in Columbia, Mo. Two panels were aimed at answering consumers’ questions about how their food is grown and raised.

Chipotle’s controversial animated “The Scarecrow” video, which casts a dim eye on industrial agriculture, was directly criticized in the first panel discussion -- a discussion titled “Animal Welfare: Beyond the Hype.”

“I think they were trying to let people know their food was better than their competitor,” said panelist Chris Chinn, a Missouri hog rancher. “And I don’t know that maybe they intentionally were trying to hurt farmers … but that’s what they’ve done. Because now people think all farms are bad.”

Fellow panelist Chris Heins, a Missouri dairy farmer, agreed.

“It’s what I would call fear-based marketing and I’m just not a fan of that. I’m a fan of promoting your own product but don’t throw other people under the bus,” Heins said. “I think that the reason it’s a cartoon is to be able to create a fanciful world where things don’t have to be real but where we can create certain types of emotions in the people who see it and watch it.”

While most of the panel topics were prompted by the moderator, morning drive radio host Tom Bradley, a few audience members did approach microphones on either side of the auditorium with questions. Bradley also read inquiries submitted by online viewers, including one from Charlotte in St. Peters, Mo. She wondered who would take over from the aging American farmer, a subject near and dear to Harvest Public Media’s heart.

The day's second panel — “Hi-tech or Low-tech: Can’t We All Just Get Along?” — focused on the need for conventional and organic agriculture to work together to meet consumer demands. These panelists also pondered portrayal of the food industry, in particular a recent Reader’s Digest issue called “The New Food Wars: Big Mac vs Big Organic.”

Panelist Jim Thomas, an organic vegetable grower and the former president of Missouri Organic Association, said the organic community believes there are too many unknowns around genetically engineered food.

“We come with more questions than we do answers on some of this because we tend to question, ‘How safe is this?’...” Thomas said. “I don’t even think the scientific community knows totally the long-term ramifications of what some of this is doing.”

But fellow panelist Blake Hurst, of the Missouri Farm Bureau, disagreed: “To argue that we don’t know the result so we ought not to do it is to argue against all progress. We’d still be living in caves if we said ‘Well, we ought not use that technology since we can’t imagine everything that will result from it.’ The same could be said of internal combustion engine, of electricity, modern medicine, of any advancement we made.”

The panelists also shared concerns about over-regulation.

“I think it has become more difficult to farm. I think it’s important that regulations are needed obviously but it’s important that they be based on sound science, that the regulations aren’t written until people involved, people affected, have a chance to comment, until science has a chance to examine the question that’s being posed by the regulations,” Hurst said. “We can overreact and lose the ability to enjoy the bounty we have if we're not very careful.”

The coalition Missouri Farmers Care co-sponsored Thursday’s event, which was attended by about 60 people and viewed by many more online. The next U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance “Food Dialogues” will be held in Boston on Oct. 24 and will focus on the differences between large and small farms.

The alliance hopes its series of panel discussions will answer consumers’ questions about food production, the impacts of farm and ranch practices on human and environmental health and the future of the food supply. In the past two years, there have been eight such conversations across the country ... and it looks like there’s plenty more to talk about.