Note to Reporters: Frank Garry is a professor and veterinarian at Colorado State University.
As Wendell Berry notes, “Eating is an agricultural act.” Eating is the final step in the agricultural enterprise that begins with planting or birth. Since food is a critical part of survival, not to mention our health and well-being, we are all eaters. We should see ourselves as active participants in where our food comes from not as passive consumers.
There is growing awareness that it really does matter how food is produced and processed. Our food systems and the public policies that surround them have profound impact on resource use, our environment and our health. But where do we get information to make choices and influence policies? In our urbanized society, fewer than 2 percent of Americans produce food. Most people have little direct personal experience to inform them about the how’s and why’s, the pros and cons of various agricultural and food production practices.
We are bombarded with information, much of which is not trustworthy or accurate. Some media information sources polarize views, portraying things as either really good or really bad, but a more thorough analysis shows middle grounds and trade-offs.
We read about meat that is ‘pumped full’ of chemicals. We contrast ‘family farms’ with ‘factory farms’ without defining either. We may view ‘large’ farms as ‘bad’ farms even though most family farms grow larger to be profitable – just like most other businesses that sell products. Many media outlets equate ‘organic’ with ‘sustainable’ and ‘nutritious’ without ever analyzing the meaning or complexities of food production beyond these terms.
The economics of food supply have a major impact on individuals and the nation. New technologies, public policies and consumer trends have shaped an agricultural system that provides an abundance of inexpensive food. The typical American family spends less than 10 percent of their income on food. This means that a lot of people are not scratching out a living on the land. Instead they put their efforts into creating and producing computers, entertainment, microwave ovens and automobiles among other luxuries and amenities. Paying less for food means people have more money to afford necessities plus some of these luxuries. Our recent economic hardships are emphasizing the importance of affordable food. Our nation’s ability to supply safe and nutritious food to all of our citizens, otherwise known as food security, is critically important.
Food production is very complex. Any individual feature of a food system has both good and bad aspects. The best way to understand how decisions about food production are made and to influence those decisions is to engage in dialogue and discussion with the people making the decisions. Producers and consumers share a lot of common values. What we really need is civil discourse between different participants in agriculture about how we can have the healthiest food made from the healthiest practices before demonizing people or practices without a full, educated picture.
We should expand our discussions about how food is grown, harvested, processed, distributed and priced. At a national level some of this process has begun at http://www.fooddialogues.com. CSU Extension with the Center for Public Deliberation will be sponsoring a community dialogue in Fort Collins on Monday, Nov. 14. Watch the Coloradoan and the Today@ColoState at www.today.colostate.edu for information on how you can participate.