What can ag learn from Food, Inc.?

By Matt Reese

Food, Inc., filmmaker Robert Kenner spoke at a Bayer CropScience conference prior to Commodity Classic. The ag media he spoke to was not his typical audience, though there was some open dialogue with regard to the film.

The 2008 movie Food, Inc. has been critically acclaimed and reached millions of viewers at the theater and through movie rentals with its the half-truths and misinformation about food production. The movie, along with related films and books, has led the charge to undermine centuries of consumer trust and goodwill with regard to the origins of their food.

From the Web site for the film: “In Food, Inc., filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the veil on our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government’s regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA. Our nation’s food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment.”

Regardless of what viewers think of the film, it has successfully created concerns among some consumers with regard to their food.

“I think people are really interested in learning about where their food comes from. I think that industry is becoming more interested in engaging in that conversation and this is a very positive step,” Kenner said. “I think on one level, I am concerned with the system we have. For the U.S., we have an abundant food system. Our farmers are growing more food on less land. Less of our paycheck is going towards that food, so it has been an absolute success. But I think we need to now start to ask about what that food is doing to us and what that food is costing us.”

When asked about the obvious imbalances in his film in the minds of agriculturalists, Kenner is quick to point out that he tried to talk to many of the leading companies in agriculture to get their side of the story, but they declined.

“I think there was a real stonewalling going on. I ultimately think companies were not all that interested in exposing how their food was made,” Kenner said. “It is always scary for companies to go on camera, but I think now companies would be more interested in going on camera because they are concerned that they might lose their customers.”

The problem remains, however, that filmmakers and book writers are in the business of generating revenue and not necessarily providing scientific or fact-based information, said Tom Nagle, with Statler and Nagel, LLC, the marketing strategies firm representing agriculture in Washington, D.C., behind the “Got Milk?” campaign.

“How do we handle the problem we face in how information gets communicated in agriculture? [Kenner’s] version of truth is someone here said X and someone here said Y with no regard to facts,” Nagel said. “The truth seems unimportant in modern media coverage. That phenomenon is killing us.”

This inaccurate information is creating a dangerous situation by serving as a powerful influence to sway consumers and public policy.

“Public policy is driven by public officials’ perceptions of the situation,” Nagel said. “Misinformation leads to erosion of trust and confidence in the food system and a threat to food and beverage brands. The danger is business and regulatory risk because of false assertions that go uncorrected and become ‘facts.’ This can restrict food choices, marketing and advertising, nutritional claims, sound science, and sustainable and efficient practices.”

The solution to this increasing problem is the development of an army of advocates that understand agriculture.

“The food industry as a whole has essentially been too silent on the issue. The activists have had the field for some time. While we have been effective as an industry in defending individual tactics and issues, in the end we can’t win by arguing about ingredients or methods or how much space a chicken needs. That is not what drives consumer opinion. What drives consumer opinion is their desire to feed their families healthy food, do the right thing and be good parents. We’re not talking to them at that level of the higher order values that make consumers respond to industries,” Nagel said. “I think the thing that the producers, the processors and the whole foods industry needs to do is assert its very positive role that it has with moms. If you look at some of the research that has been done, people feel pretty good about food companies and farmers. We are not capitalizing on that as a food industry.”

Change is underway with efforts to increase the number of agricultural advocates.

“The work we’re trying to do is focused on informing people and activating them,” Nagel said. “The answer to activists to some extent is to activate normal people with rational opinions. That is one of the things we think we can do.”

The simple goal is to reach consumers with accurate, real information to correct the all-too-prevalent inaccuracies.

“You’re not going to change PETA’s attitude, period. What we’re failing to do is activate the people who are inclined to support the food industry, who understand what we do for them and their families. I think it is more a question of finding or nurturing our supporters than it is about changing the attitudes of our antagonists,” he said. “It is a tendency of industries and companies to tell their story, and my recommendation is that we focus on telling the consumer about our role in their story, which is a little different than talking about ourselves. We need to talk to families about what is important to them and the role we already play in their lives.”

There is no one better to do this than farmers themselves. Troy Hadrick, a South Dakota cattle rancher who gained recognition around the world when he dumped out a bottle of Yellow Tail wine after the company made a donation to the Humane Society of the United States, has been doing just that. Troy and his wife Stacy try to take every opportunity they can to share about agriculture with consumers. They always have a brief “30-second elevator speech” at the ready that simply includes: their name, where they are from and how they are involved in agriculture.

“When people figure out you’re in food production, they have questions for you,” Stacy said. “Then you need to couple sound, real information with your story.”

This simple conversation starter can be very successful at addressing the problem one person at a time.

“Today we have to be out telling the story of agriculture and how food gets on the plate. We’ve got so many people that do not understand it. They hear scary stories and scary headlines. They’re believing them and it’s not the truth,” Troy said. “The best way to get the real story out there is for farmers and ranchers to introduce themselves and tell their story to one person at a time. Every time we’ve done that it has been a huge success.”

Simply by dumping a bottle of wine in a video on the Internet, Troy started a chain reaction that reached around the world and led to a huge loss of donations for HSUS.

“We stopped two years of Yellow Tail donations to HSUS and we didn’t even leave home to do it,” Troy said. “It is your responsibility to dispel myths about agriculture. One person can make a difference.”

What can an army of agricultural advocates do?

For more resources, visit advocatesforag.com, contact the local Farm Bureau or work or get involved with a commodity organization. For social media leaning resources visit http://bit.ly/OFBFsocialmedia.

Troy Hadrick, a South Dakota cattle rancher who gained recognition around the world when he dumped out a bottle of Yellow Tail wine after the company made a donation to the Humane Society of the United States, spoke with his wife, Stacy, at Commodity Classic.

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