A few months ago, Andy and I had a conversation about how our roles within our professional worlds shape others’ perspectives of us, particularly when it comes to talking about agricultural issues.
When Andy and I first met, I think our roles caused both to see one another as “misinformed.” To me, Andy was the research scientist living and breathing agriculture so much that he had forgotten to understand the perspective of the consumer and of the rural neighbor.
To Andy, I think I came across as this young mother who was caught up in all the hype, the activist who was misquoting research. If I didn’t like living out under the shadow of manure-laden air, then why didn’t I just move into town, he wondered.
Slowly, our perspectives of one another began to change, mostly because we listened long enough to validate one another’s concerns and knowledge. We stopped throwing convenient stereotypes onto each other and realized the truth of the matter: We were both concerned about our food system.
When I told Andy that throughout this blog, I would undoubtedly be battling the public perception that I was ignorant and uninformed simply because I wasn’t a farmer (or deeply entrenched in the scientific agricultural community), he disagreed. “Surely, that’s just a small percentage of people that would think that about you, Lindsay,” he said.
For nearly 8 years, however, I’ve been battling this perception every time I voice a concern to anyone in the position to affect change within the ag community. And from my travels throughout rural Ohio, I know my experiences aren’t isolated as I’ve listened to the stories of the rural neighbors living between fields and barns proliferating with corporate industrialization. The mantra to all of us resounds: If you’re not born and bred into agriculture, your opinion and your concerns aren’t legitimate.
We always got treated like we were the problem, like it was our fault for living right in the middle of Pohlmann’s chicken barns. We were treated like we were incapable of thinking for ourselves, like we were the enemy who had to be endured (J. Wenig, independent farmer, LaRue, Ohio).
So often, people have tried to paint us as anti-farm. What they refuse to admit is that most people who stand up against these factory farms have lived in the country their whole lives. They have been surrounded by chickens and cattle and hogs, and most of them have lived or worked on farms (Jane P., Custar, Ohio).
And then recently, I read a post from Bovidiva (Jude Capper)—Activism 101: How to Write Like an Angry Internet Expert on GMOs. (Incidentally, I stumbled across this blog while reading Janice Person’s blog. Janice is the social media director at Monsanto, and she posted Jude Capper’s blog post as one of the Top 10 Ag Blog Posts of 2013.) While I know that snarky is the tone of choice for this blog post, I still couldn’t stop my heart from sinking to my stomach. This is what I was talking to Andy about, I thought to myself, as I arrived at the end of her post where she reminded me that the only way I could possibly know anything about the food I eat is by being “employed within the industry in question”:
*Note that being an “expert” does not involve education, higher degrees or being employed within the industry in question. Nowadays you can only be an expert if you are entirely impartial, third-party, and preferably know nothing whatsoever about the system in question. On that basis, I’m off to write a book about Zen Dentistry.
When I contacted Jude Capper about this post, expressing my sadness at the tone, at the obvious lack of reaching across the aisle to start a conversation, at her unfiltered disdain for anyone outside of science who would dare have an opinion on food production, she held firm to her position in a way that reminisced of the Age of Reason: Science above Experience.
In every other branch of science, whether it’s medicine, dentistry or nuclear physics we accept that scientists and PhDs have expertise and have opinions that are worth noting. . . . Yet, when it comes to food, particularly GMOs, it seems that scientists and PhDs are too often considered to be paid shills for corporate agriculture (check out some of the GMO groups on social media to see this accusation being repeated ad infinitum) and only those with no scientific background can be trusted – the old “follow the money” fallacy.
In all honesty, I understand her position (and her annoyance). I see evidence of what she’s talking about every day in my social media feed. I see the same authors quoted endlessly by ever popular bloggers as the experts on all things food, and I cringe as food documentaries get praised and quoted as irrefutable. It makes it hard for people to decipher truth from fiction, but here’s something to think about: Perhaps the tactics Jude Capper criticizes are birthed out of the secrets held by the corporations that feed the world.
In short, people choose to trust Joe Schmo’s blog because the science isn’t transparent.
I recently read an article published in the March 2013 issue of PLoS Biology entitled “Biosafety Data as Confidential Business Information.” In it, Kaare M. Nielsen reminds us that “science depends on peer review taking place before and after publication,” but because the “data necessary to assure the safe use of GMOs can be withheld from public peer review,” great consumer distrust has arisen out of the dearth of transparency. For agricultural corporations, Confidential Business Information (CBI) includes “transgene sequence data, transgenic seeds and other GMO materials, which precludes the development of independent research and monitoring strategies.”
Translation? The public at large has little to no access regarding the composition, environmental interactions, allergenicity, toxicity, and any other aspects that deal with food safety because much of it has been determined as CBI.
What this also means (and here’s the important part that Big Ag often leaves out when pointing fingers), is that the public is left to make sense of the minutiae of research that has been made available to them. Are they experts? No, not by most standards. But are they trying to be informed consumers? Are they concerned about their food systems? Do they have a right to ask questions and receive transparent answers? Are they attempting to be knowledgeable and empowered, albeit sometimes reactionary and fearful?
Yes. Yes. Yes. And Yes.
For too long, the scientific community has treated consumers and rural neighbors like intruders, like the unwitting, idiotic nuisance that just needs to get out of the way. Instead of recognizing us as partners in a gigantic food system, the ag community simply wants us to shut up and clean our plates. And they do this by reminding us every chance they get that we are just businessmen and women, urbanites, rural transplants, housewives, teachers, lawyers—anything but farmers and agricultural scientists, and with those reminders, we are expected to be silent because we can’t possibly have valid and informed concerns.
When a doctor treats us like this in the exam room, we demand a different practitioner.
When a teacher treats our child like this in the classroom, we schedule a conference with every administrator who will listen.
When a business treats us like this on Main Street, we take our business elsewhere.
But in science, in agriculture, in food production, we are to be still and trust the scientists–the ones who refuse to share data with us, the ones who refuse to recognize that GMO science is still young, and the ones who refuse to answer any questions that might make them rethink their strategies.
They have forgotten that our food system is not an aristocracy. They have forgotten that good science demands organized skepticism, filters out motivational bias, grants access to the scientific process, and seeks universal standards (Nielsen).
Is the consumer misinformed at times? With complete certainty, yes. But pushing us to the margins and calling us unequipped to understand our food system? Well, that’s an elitism that reeks of bad science and fear mongering masked behind a bully pulpit.
KM Nielsen. “Biosafety Data as Confidential Business Information.” PLoS Biology 11.3 (March 2013). Web. 29 December 2013. e1001499/doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001499.
Lindsay came up with the title “Does Big Ag Use a Bully Pulpit?” for this post and I admit that when I saw the title my kneejerk reaction was to offer alternative titles to Lindsay. Although I’m not comfortable with the title, it reflects Lindsay’s opinion and I respect and value her opinion.
Let me back up before I respond to Lindsay’s concerns…
This blog project came about through many conversations with Lindsay starting in 2012. Some conversations were through email, but many (if not most) of our conversations were (and are) via phone or skype. I came to each and every conversation with the mindset of wanting to ask questions to invite more conversation and really listening to what Lindsay had to say.
I recall one of my conversations with Lindsay in 2012 regarding this project – the conversation drifted into a discussion about family. I realized that we share many common values. I believe starting from a place of common values has helped me and has helped our conversations flourish.
I am not a farmer, but I know that agriculture is what I was meant to do with my life. I have dedicated my education and my professional career to agriculture. I consider myself a student of agriculture and I am eager to listen and learn. I am proud to have a helping hand in producing safe, nutritious and affordable food.
Going forward to address Lindsay’s concerns…
There are excellent efforts in place to listen to the opinions and concerns about agriculture regardless of whether you are born and bred in agriculture. Two examples that immediately come to my mind are The Food Dialogues and Common Ground.
The Food Dialogues – http://www.fooddialogues.com/ – conversations about food and agriculture made possible by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Below is an example of a few timely topics available at The Food Dialogues:
- What’s on my plate? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LP0Gbn5_5ds
- Misconceptions about family farming http://www.fooddialogues.com/2014/04/14/conversation-of-the-day-misconceptions-about-family-farming
- Farming Differences – It’s OK to be Different http://www.fooddialogues.com/2014/01/02/farming-differences-%E2%80%93-its-ok-to-be-different
- The Food Knowledge Gap http://www.fooddialogues.com/2014/01/14/the-food-knowledge-gap
Common Ground – http://findourcommonground.com/ – Common Ground is a great example where experience is incorporated into responses to concerns. From the Common Ground website, “It’s a conversation based on our personal experience as farmers, but also on science and research.” Here are some examples from Common Ground:
- Farming and Food Facts – http://findourcommonground.com/food-facts/ – credible answers to the most asked questions.
- Food Conversation Blog – http://findourcommonground.com/blog/ – join the conversation!
- Animal Welfare Concerns – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28IVdbSys4k&list=UUz3gjEQ-5qOOKt4BF3OXKoA – Iowa farmer, Katie Olthoff discusses key animal welfare questions.
These two efforts, The Food Dialogues and Common Ground are a reflection that agriculture is listening to your opinions and concerns.
Lindsay mentioned concerns about allergenicity, toxicity, and other issues that relate to GMOs. I concede that many questions about GMOs have gone unaddressed in the past. It has been difficult to find information quickly and easily. Those of us in agriculture need to work more closely with the public to provide answers and transparency. GMO Answers is public forum that allows for full transparency on the subject of GMOs. A wide range of topics are covered at GMO Answers: science, processes, human health, environmental impacts, labelling, and patents. Experts from a variety of disciplines address all questions directly. We in agriculture *want* to provide responses to all your questions in an effort to explain GMOs and the GMO industry.
To do a better job answering your questions a website has been created – GMO Answers – http://gmoanswers.com/. From GMO Answers:
“Join us. Ask tough questions. Be skeptical. Be open. We look forward to sharing answers.”
Here are some examples from GMO Answers that help to address some of Lindsay’s concerns:
- How do we know an inserted gene does only what it is supposed to do? http://gmoanswers.com/studies/how-do-we-know-inserted-gene-does-only-what-it-supposed-do
- Is there good evidence that inserting genes of allergenic organisms into those that don’t normally contain them will not cause allergic reactions in people sensitive to specific allergens, e.g. soy? http://gmoanswers.com/ask/there-good-evidence-inserting-genes-allergenic-organisms-those-dont-normally-contain-them-will
- Ultimate Gluten Free: Does Glyphosate Cause Celiac Disease? http://gmoanswers.com/studies/ultimate-gluten-free-does-glyphosate-cause-celiac-disease-actually-no
We need science, and we need experience. Both are needed to address the food challenges over the next three decades. We are doing better job being more transparent about the science and experience in our food system through efforts such as The Food Dialogues, Common Ground and GMO Answers.
In addition there are hundreds and hundreds (thousands?) of individual farmer’s blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and other social media channels which provide transparency in agriculture and food production. It’s pretty easy to take a virtual farm tour and learn more about who is producing your food and how they are producing your food. Here’s a great example:
We have more work to do, and I’m eager to hear other ideas agriculture should embrace to become more transparent.
As always, I appreciate and value Lindsay’s opinion. Let’s keep the conversation going.