Nov 4, 2009
Are We the Bad Guys?

As soon as I saw the guy with the ponytail, I knew we were in trouble.

As we got closer, I caught snatches of conversation. Somebody was recounting the bad deeds of big ag corporations and the World Trade Organization. Terms like “organic,” “fair trade” and “NPR” were bandied about.

Yep, we were in trouble.

My wife and I were taking part in a walking tour in our home town of Grand Rapids, Mich. With about a dozen other people, we were shown several backyard gardens full of home-grown produce. Our guides – neighborhood organizers and other idealists – encouraged us to grow our own gardens, supply ourselves with fruit and vegetables, be a little more self-reliant, fight The Man.

If it sounds like I’m mocking them, please forgive me. That’s not my intention. These are good people, who want to make a positive difference in the world and are acting on their beliefs. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a desire to put food production back into the hands of the common folk. My wife and I wouldn’t have been there if we didn’t want to participate in some small way.

But sometimes, especially when I hear people talk about “growing organic” or “buying local” with an almost religious zeal, I can’t help but wonder: Why can’t people encourage that stuff without making large-scale agriculture look like the bad guy?

It’s not just an idle question. The clichés we keep hearing are true: John Q. Public really has lost touch with the farm. He really doesn’t know that much about where his food comes from. But he wants to do the right thing, and he’s open to persuasion. When a true believer comes along and tells Mr. Public that organic is going to save the world from the evils of conventional agriculture, Mr. Public might just believe him.

For example, some of you might have read the Time magazine article “Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food” (dated Aug. 21). You could definitely classify its author – who obviously has read Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (an excellent piece of investigative journalism, by the way) – as a true believer in the power of the organic/local/sustainable farming movement to make the world a better place, and in the failure of conventional agriculture to do so.

Check out this sentence: “Unless Americans radically rethink the way they grow and consume food, they face a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs – and bland taste.”

Yikes. Food Armageddon.

I’m not saying statements like that are totally wrong (extreme would be a better word). But who’s telling Mr. Public the other side of the story? You know, that “industrial” ag feeds most of the world, that local and organic systems have their limitations, that not all farm workers are oppressed and downtrodden?

That’s not an angle you typically see in the general media – but that doesn’t necessarily mean reporters are biased. I wrote for newspapers for several years, long enough to learn that the people who make the most noise usually get the most attention, especially when the reporter doesn’t know much about the topic in question. Typically, your average vegetable grower out in the field is not the loudest voice out there, and he wouldn’t know how to manipulate a reporter if he tried.

But there’s hope for the humble. Even though conventional agriculture is being vilified, most of the salvos are aimed at meat, dairy and commodity crops. Vegetables and fruit have been getting a lot of attention for their healthful attributes. Even the Time magazine article suggests that calories from produce are more healthful than calories from other foods, and it plainly states that produce production makes less of a carbon footprint than meat or dairy production (John Q. Public worries about that sort of thing nowadays).

So, you guys might benefit from all the negative press – just don’t brag about it to the dairy farmer down the street.


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