Have you enjoyed a good sunset lately?
This summer we had a stretch of beautiful summer cool days that made it a pleasure to be outside doing anything (even baling hay). Those beautiful days led to beautiful, crisp nights, many of which were buffered in by breathtaking sunsets.
After a long Saturday afternoon of stacking small square hay bales on the wagon, I wiped the sweat off my forehead and looked up to notice a beautiful sky as the sun dipped down toward the western horizon between the trees and rolling hills in the distance. I was hot and I had been working hard, but the cool evening breeze and the stunning pinkish-orangey-red colors of the sky after a day of working with family offered very a pleasant and hard to quantify kind of feeling.
We live in a science-obsessed society, but some things (like sunsets) are not about science. I am sure that some scientist somewhere could calculate an equation or track brain waves or something that could scientifically describe why people find pretty sunsets appealing. But, by the time the numbers are crunched and the equations are solved, the sun has already set, the allure is gone and the sunset is not really all that appealing anymore.
I think, in many cases, the same thing has happened with food. For many people in our society, food is about taste and experience and novelty. Food is about conversation and comparison and eating with friends and family. Food is intimate. Food is about enjoyment. And, with this in mind, any food debate, for many, is simply about the food. Once you get to a depth past that conversation about what best accompanies great tasting garden tomatoes, there is not much left to talk about. In conversations with people who are passionate about great food, science can seem somewhat unsavory. Enjoying a great meal is very un-sciencey for most people.
But most people aren’t farmers. To the producers of crops and livestock, food is quite a bit about about science. Next month, farmers will come from all over the region to celebrate the astounding science of agriculture at the Farm Science Review. From the soil below to the satellites overhead, the food grown in this country is the product of incredible, earth changing, mind-bending science that we still do not fully comprehend.
Since the dawn of mankind, we have been working to turn food production into a science that eliminates the drudgery of having to eat to survive. What we have is not a perfect science, but it is a pretty effective food system.
Because of this, agriculture has long been proud to talk about the success of the science that helps us produce our food better than any generation before. But this is a message more and more people do not seem to want to hear.
Unfortunately, talking about good, accurate, real, boring food science to a passionate food lover goes over just about as well as trying to quantify the emotional and artistic appeal of a rural sunset with a sentimental city dweller. It just does not work well. When it comes to science, the drama of food pairs much better with scary sounding science at the dinner table. Ironically, it is the oft-criticized science of food that permits the art of preparing, enjoying, talking about and writing about un-sciencey food.
So how do we communicate the science behind the art of food? In mid-August, I got to attend the Food Dialogues: Ohio held in Columbus. The event featured panel discussions of experts with diverse viewpoints — lovers of science and lovers of food — on pertinent consumer oriented topics.
In many ways, this series of events held around the country directly addresses the challenges of the food debate. Listeners got to hear both sides of the debate from well-spoken experts representing the side of science and the more emotional side of food. Both offer valid, well-reasoned points. In the debates, is was not necessarily about right or wrong and there was ample opportunity for agreeing to disagree.
By the end of the debating, many questions were answered and many more brought up. Most everyone left feeling that the key to the whole food science mess is informed and conscientious consumers who make fact-based decisions that they feel are best for their families.
“I think everyone came away with the idea that the consumer needs to make informed choices that are comfortable for them,” said Doug Billman, an organic dairy producers who was on one of the panels. “Consumers need to be informed about what they are feeding their family.”
This, of course, is not an easy task considering the mountain of conflicting “science” on food out there to digest. This is where farmers come in. Those involved with agriculture need to speak up about the facts on their farms. The Food Dialogues can serve as a good start for farmers to begin breaking down these conversation barriers.
“It is important that we have the conversation and get it out in the open with good dialogue and good choices for everyone,” said Allen Armstrong who farms in Clark County and was a part of a panel discussion. “This is a great door opener. The conversation needs to continue.”
You can watch the debates online at ofbf.org/news-and-events/news/3423/ to get a feel for how consumer oriented conversations could go and get some ideas on how to handle some challenging questions. The bottom line is that, in reality, the art and science of food are interwoven with each other and, as unsavory as it may sound to some, any food discussion worth its salt must involve some science, but it also must involve emotional connections and shared values. There is nothing wrong with calculations, facts and science that are in black and white, but great foods — like great sunsets — are in color.