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The Great Divide – ‘small family farmers are good, big agriculture is bad’

Vocal stakeholders from all walks of life continue to challenge intensive food production and processing systems. Foundations, environmental NGOs, public health groups, medical associations, celebrity chefs and government officials from USDA’s secretary to local government planning agencies continue to support initiatives like home/community gardens, smaller local farms and sustainable agriculture.

Feeling threatened, some farmers and agricultural leaders are responding defensively. There’s anger and frustration about “inaccurate and unfair movies, magazine articles and undercover videos attempting to turn public opinion against agriculture.” Some are publicly framing agriculture’s critics as fringe elements or “crazies.”

But is this the way to respond? Many rational people embrace messages farmers consider misleading or inaccurate, and they are not likely to accept being told they are not sound in their thinking, beliefs and concerns. Isn’t a more constructive response one that acknowledges agriculture’s challenges and emphasizes that the sector is seeking solutions with an attitude of continuous improvement? Our Food Foresight panel would suggest that rebuilding agriculture’s brand around wholesome, straightforward and individual identities is a better route. “We are not angry, resentful or avoiding our responsibilities,”says Food Foresight panelist Nathan Rudgers, former agriculture commissioner for the state of New York and now with Farm Credit East. “We’re farmers doing the best we can to feed people healthy, affordable food in a responsible way.”

Big agriculture and agribusiness tend to be portrayed as industrial villains raking in big profits and government subsidies while running roughshod over the environment, farm animals and often their own workers. One would expect these voices to be from activist NGOs fighting for their causes — which they often are — but these are also views shared by everyday consumers increasingly interested in how their food is produced and where it comes from. There’s a clear dichotomy in perceptions about farmers and agriculture: On one hand, family farmers are seen as good. The romance of the farmer is highly valued in popular culture — multi-generational families caring for the land and struggling to maintain their farming way of life and their rural communities. On the other hand big agriculture is increasingly seen as bad in spite of large intensive agriculture being for the most part multi-generational family farms.  Is there an opportunity for bridging this great divide? We would say it’s an urgent imperative.

Authentically re-branding agriculture is one way. While agriculture may not have star communicators like Michael Pollan, it has an army of farmers who can put a face to farming starting in their own communities and expanding out through the Internet. There also can be NGO partners who might be engaged to speak out on mutually beneficial issues.

Getting more fully engaged in the issue discussions affecting the sector – like climate change, hunger and obesity – is still another opportunity. As the tenacious leaders of California’s Ag Vision will attest, it isn’t easy. These issues require straight talk – but with science as a foundation – and a long-term commitment to stakeholder engagement and two-way education.

The need to merge feeding objectives with increased productivity, poverty reduction, improved health and wellness, and sustainability is surfacing in multiple professional forums around the world. A sustainable international food system, inclusive of all kinds of food production on all sizes of farms, with increased application of science and technology is an emerging opportunity to change the conversation about production agriculture.

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