Monday, May 14, 2012

With full bellies and suspicious minds, consumers are questioning more than ever the science behind their food. Genetically modified crops, antibiotics, pesticides — these are all scary sounding things that seem more at home in a science laboratory than in relation to something as intimate as the food on our plates. Despite the fact that it is this same technology that allows for those plates to be so full of healthy, bountiful and diverse foods, the reality is that such science sounds suspicious to many consumers
With every aspect of these seemingly mysterious production practices, science is on the side of agriculture, but it is not always easy, or practical, to convey this to people. Because of this, it is easy for the agricultural industry as a whole (from the scientists to the farmers) to make decisions based on the science and move forward without much explanation to or consultation with the general populace about what is going on.
Any change has some inherent risks, some more than others, and the decisions that are made in agricultural production are based on the pros and cons considering the best science available. Zero risk is impossible, but if the risks are very small, and the benefits are very significant, it only makes sense to move agricultural production forward as mankind has done for thousands of years.
This concept does not always make sense to consumers, though, who do not care to hear about any risk in their food supply. The result: we don’t tell them about the risks because, quite frankly, they are much too difficult for most of us to explain. Hence, agriculture implements these practices that are “dark secrets” in the minds of some consumers.
The details of the science behind agriculture are not quick sound bites or catchy headlines. And, when a hog farmer gets a concerned phone call from a neighbor about an article they read about the risks of antibiotics in meat, how would he effectively, honestly and accurately convey the complex science to defend antibiotic use? It cannot honestly be stated that there are no risks associated with antibiotic use. There are risks. The word risk, though, is not something that a neighbor wants to hear about their food.
Most hog farmers cannot honestly say that they do not use antibiotics, thus incurring the associated risks. Again, this is not something the neighbor wants to hear. The hog farmer could honestly explain that the use of antibiotics allows farmers to bring a healthier animal to market for the consumer, which is a significant benefit to the consumer that outweighs any associated risks based upon the body of available science. Whoa, there’s that risk word again. Eating pork from this farm must not be safe.
The farmer could clam up and not say anything, which obviously does not inspire trust. The farmer could lie. But, in most cases, whatever the exchange, these dark secrets of agriculture continue to persist, despite the best attempts for open, honest discussion from both parties.
Unfortunately, this happens over and over again with many aspects of modern agricultural production. The science is accurate and valid, but hard to explain to suspicious consumers who have been scared to death from all of the reports highlighting the worst-case scenarios of the production practice in question.
The answer to this broad problem is not an easy one. The concerned neighbor could quit his job, go to college and get a food science masters degree and write an exhaustive literature review to get an accurate handle on the science behind the production practices. The farmer could neglect his duties on the farm, sift through stacks of research and go through the science of all of his production practices with the neighbor over the course of months or years. Neither one of these options is terribly practical.
The most practical solution, however, may be even more challenging. Trust. This is a two-way relationship. If the neighbor does not want to trust the farmer, he can go out and find plenty of accurate scientific research about the possible risks of eating food in our current system of food production. He can find examples of bad players in agriculture that abuse their responsibility and examples of some of these risks realized. That is as easy as a few quick Google searches on the Internet.
And, while the neighbor has to trust, the farmer has to be worthy of that trust by taking the time to understand the concerns of the neighbor and explain how things work on the farm in an honest and open manner. The farmer has to make the effort to develop a relationship with the neighbor that facilitates trust. The farmer also has to understand the science enough to accurately spell out the realities of the situation.
Many consumers are taking steps to learn, but it is easy for them to get lost in the sea of twisted science and misinformation out there. If agriculture does not take measures to re-gain trust, the politics stemming from consumer concerns about these perceived “dark secrets” of agriculture will limit or eliminate the tools that enable farms to provide such a bountiful, safe harvest — a dark possibility indeed.