When food conversations fall short…


Food conversations can be as easy as a personalized luggage tag

I was on a Delta flight from Orlando to  Atlanta last week. It was a late afternoon flight, full of mid-week business travelers. If you’re headed to Atlanta, there will be several. I was seated between a young woman who was involved in her book and on my right was middle-aged lady working the word puzzles in the day’s papers. No shoulder room for this guy!

Conversations in airports are extremely easy to start; as simple as asking “What are you traveling for?” If someone’s without their headphones, I consider it fair game to at least attempt a friendly discussion. The lady on my right worked with medical insurance claims, and I described my trip to speak with a group of Florida farmers. She quickly asked if I worked with agriculture, and I said “yes ma’am, many kinds.”

The conversation then took a turn that made me hold my breath… She asked, “Have you seen the movie Food Inc.?

I failed to write my thoughts soon enough, but she asked a few questions about food production and if my experience in agriculture makes me worry about the food I eat. I think my response surprised her when I said “what I know makes me feel better about the food we have in this country.

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It’s my opinion that many food “documentaries”, investigative or undercover videos, and information from food activists groups often misrepresents modern agriculture. Take my ongoing series discussing cattle feedlots. I have worked for those “corporate factory farms” that many people describe; actually, two of the largest in the cattle business. I have a few opinions about things that can be improved (more on that later), but from my experience, what I see in films like Food Inc. or videos from groups like HSUS and MFA, does not accurately represent livestock production. These materials are presented in such a way as to depict the entire industry as committing these cruel acts, and as if the majority of the industry allows these cruel acts to continue.

From my many conversations with folks concerned about our food supply, it’s not so much these instances of cruelty that concerns them, rather it’s the system that disturbs them. The average consumer discussing modern food concerns is scared of what they don’t know about where our food comes from (a great example is the One Hundred Meals project).

Conversations centered around food production and raising livestock are so far out of hand, it’s not even funny. It’s downright scary. We have to do a better job of learning before telling folks on the other side of the table they need to know more.

Nothing is more frustrating than when I respond to questions with honest experience from the heart of the cattle business, and folks cannot accept the possibility that I am not lying. Nothing is more frustrating than the person who I really want to reach, comments on the story that I need to learn what real meat production looks like by watching a film about animal cruelty. Nothing is more frustrating than the agriculture advocate telling the concerned customer their position is wrong.

My conversation on the plane ride didn’t go as I would have hoped. This kind lady is concerned about the safety of her food and chooses to buy her food with organic and natural labels. And that’s perfectly fine, I enjoy and encourage food choices. I left with the feeling that in her eyes my method of cattle production is wrong.

It was then that I turned the conversation to family and friends, travel destinations, and asked about her hobbies and listened to her concerns about politics and medical care – topics where we were able to find some common ground.

Before we got off the plane in Atlanta, I handed her my card and asked her to check out my links to farmers across the country as they talk about food topics that she mentioned.

We may all dream up that perfect airplane conversation in our minds and plan out what we’ll say if we ever sit down to a food conversation, but they won’t always go as planned. In that case, I will just use an opportunity to ask questions and gain experience.

So when food conversations fall short… Just keep swimming. Never stop learning…

Never stop learning and adapting.  The world will always be changing.  If you limit yourself to what you knew and what you were comfortable with earlier in your life, you will grow increasingly frustrated with your surroundings as you age.
–David Niven

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27 Comments

    1. Very true. Maybe in the end because of talking to her she may recommend Ryan’s blog to some of her friends because of what she’s learned.

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  1. Ryan, thanks for your post. I really enjoy your articles. I love the picture of you and the horse, by the way :).
    Re Food, Inc.: I believe the producers invited Monsanto, Tyson, and other big companies to state their side in the film, but the companies declined, just FYI. But you’ve brought up interesting points re these documentaries, and I’ll do some research for my own information.
    Re your post: it really sounds like everyone is getting tarred with the same brush when it comes to animal activism — on both “sides,” if you want to call them that. On my side, as a person who’s interested in animal welfare, I too feel attacked, just as you probably do, but in different terms. I’m the most reasonable person in the world, but I’ve had people (some with an agricultural bent :), accuse me, due to my interest in animal welfare, of a “liberal agenda,” (heh?), being a “city slicker” (I’m not), a “bored housewife with nothing else to think of” (I only wish, haha), a “radical vegan” (I’m not vegan or radical), “a radical activist,” (like I have the energy) … and so on. So from the other side (and I hate even using that term), I feel for you. There’s a lot of anger out there and ignorance, but it cuts both ways. We all need to be respectful of each other and I cringe when people use terms like “animal activist,” or “AR” when talking about anyone who has an interest in animal welfare. As any reasonable person would, I know nothing is black and white, and there are many, many good people in farming.
    Anyway, thanks for your blog and for listening. Glad you and your seat mate parted in peace, and there were no … snakes on the plane!

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    1. You make some great points Kay about keeping ourselves open to other viewpoints and choosing words carefully to do that. Of course social media is a bunch of real people and we don’t always word things the right way until someone draws our attention to it. I know a little while ago I explained to a farmer who shared a photo about how removed most America was from the farm that I can’t feel removed from something that not even my grandparents felt connected to.

      Monsanto did talk to the producers of Food Inc, and offered to meet with them — here’s a blog post the company did on the topic back then http://monsantoblog.com/2009/06/08/food-inc-monsanto-did-not-decline-to-participate/

      And I met the Dean of Iowa State ag a while ago and she asked the producer about how the film was done. I googled and found the transcript in a PDF online, (starting on page 37 http://www.croplifeamerica.org/sites/default/files/node_documents/Complete%202011%20NPC%20Transcript.pdf) she said:

      “I’m Wendy Wintersteen, I serve as a Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. I wanted to share with you that our scientists that you interviewed in the movie, that were in the movie’s final version, felt very disserved by how they were managed or handle in that
      process. In fact, one of the scientist was in an article by Oil Chemist in a column called Inform and talked about his experience and now badly he felt it had gone. The producers, according to the article, were asked to respond to his complaints but did not do so. And so to me this is the unfortunateness of the situation we’re in now. We can’t seem to find a point of common ground where we can actually have a conversation that is not in the two extremes.”

      I tend to agree with Wintersteen that more and more extremes are driving the conversation but I also feel like more of the regular people are tired of that and its why we are writing blogs, building connections and learning from others directly. It doesn’t undo the harm caused by mass scale misinformation but its a great start.

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      1. Thanks, Janice! There are differing stories about Monsanto’s invitation to be interviewed in the film, with claims from each side. Smithfield, Tyson, and Perdue did decline to be interviewed. The issue is, if I go on the Monsanto site, I’m not getting an unbiased view of the company there either. There’s enough controversy swirling around the company’s practices that it bears a second and third look. But we all just have to keep parsing and parsing information, and researching and researching. And we have to look at who’s behind the information we consume, no pun intended. Thanks so much!

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      2. If you aren’t familiar with onehundredmeals.com, I encourage you to check them out. They are trying to take in information from all parts of the spectrum, relying on a lot of independent scientists, etc to better understand topics.

        I work for Monsanto so I know I’m not objective. I just also know for a fact many of the allegations I hear have no basis in reality.

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      3. Thanks, Janice, I’ll definitely check out the site. I appreciate your honesty and your post, plus you have an inside look at what’s up, since you work at Monsanto. So I appreciate your viewpoint. It’s truly hard to get accurate information and I’m just as guilty as the next person of being lazy about ardently pursuing every perspective. Thanks again for the site link — will look forward to reading it. Take care!

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    2. Kay, I agree that people on both sides* have been guilty of name-calling, stereotyping, and misrepresenting the facts. We all can, and should, try to do better.

      *actually, I think the food conversations is more like a brilliant diamond, with innumerable facets!

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      1. That’s a good point, Daren (re the facets of food conversations). There’s so much to learn about and so many factors to consider. And, yes, some name-calling does occur, unfortunately. People are passionate about their beliefs, which can be good … and bad :).

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  2. Ryan, the last in-depth conversation I had on a plane ended up with a gentleman taking my card so he could email me his questions about rabbits (which breeds got the best return for meat breeding, housing systems, etc.) — I’ve also been blatantly told to my face that I was misguided and perhaps evil because I had worked on a farm that produced GMO crops and my family used to raise cattle. You win some, you lose some. But, you always LEARN some.

    Great post, Ryan! Keep up the great work. And JUST KEEP SWIMMING!

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    1. Kelly, how do you feel about GMO foods being labeled? Is that possible at this point or are we consuming a fair amount of GMO foods anyway so it would be difficult to go backwards, so to speak? That’s a controversy I’ve heard about, but am not very knowledgeable about — it seems reasonable to label GMO foods and let consumers choose, but I just want to ensure I’m understanding the full picture here. And if this is something you can’t or don’t have time to address, no worries. I’ll check more into it. Thanks!

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      1. Hi Kay! This might get a little lengthy, and I apologize for that. Since it’s a complicated issue, it draws a complicated response.

        GMO labeling is a tricky subject; in many ways, I feel like it’s a bit redundant given the fact that so many foods do contain GMO. Since organics and many other non-GMO options are already clearly labelled as GMO-free, it just seems like an extra amount of work and regulation to obtain information that we already, in a way have. I also think that folks who are against GMO’s will use labeling as a platform to cause fear that people otherwise wouldn’t have. I’m a big advocate of finding the truth and coming to conclusions on an individual level — unfortunately, fear is an emotion that’s sometimes easy to incite and difficult to quell, whether it is justified or not.

        I, personally, don’t believe GMO’s are wrong. I think they unlock a LOT of potential for providing nutrients to a world we are struggling to feed. I also think that, like chocolate and wine, all things are fine in moderation. We need all food systems to sustainably meet the world’s food needs — whether that’s using GMO traits to protect percentages of yield that would have been lost otherwise. GMO are a controversial subject, but I almost more firmly believe that they will play a role in alleviating global hunger issues after spending this week at the World Food Prize Symposium. Many of the world’s greatest food, hunger, and sustainability minds have met here, and most of them have mentioned in one way or another that GMO technology is something we should not condemn. I worry that creating more of an issue of GMO’s, when non-GMO products are already labeled, could increase the controversy surrounding them and compromise our ability to continue research that could ease the hunger- and malnourishment-related suffering of the world.

        I firmly support choice in the food world; I have both organic and conventional foods in my pantry back home. I have friends and colleagues and mentors whose ideals and methods range across several different facets of the food systems. I would never move to limit anyone’s choice in the foods they seek, but I also find it hard to justify additional labeling when labeling is already done proactively by non-GMO groups.

        Thanks for asking, and again I apologize for being long-winded! If you have any questions, feel free to ask; if I can’t answer them myself I can do my best to find someone who can!

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    2. Kelly, so sorry folks do give you a hard time. Meant to say that. You’re not evil; you’re trying to feed people and make a living! Anyway re your response (sorry, have a bit of a cold, not thinking too straight). That’s helpful, thank you. I feel that as a consumer I’d like to know what’s modified and what’s not, but then again, you bring up a good point that consumers could simply choose organic or non-GMO. For me, I feel uneasy about GMO foods so I want in-depth oversight, which goes beyond labeling, of course. But I appreciate the information, because I was unsure about the labeling issue. I do understand the need to feed our fast-growing population and I’m not saying GMO is necessarily bad, but I think we would be foolish not to proceed with caution. If Monsanto feels their genetically modified organisms are safe, why not just allow the labeling (rather than fight it?) and let the consumer choose? They should realize that the genie’s out of the bag and the controversy already exists. Thanks so much for the info. I appreciate the opportunity to ask you more questions – you are very kind!

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      1. Kay, I encourage a mindset of conscientiousness and caution in food choices! And I absolutely appreciate your kind words about being called “evil.” I sit right now in a break from the largest hunger summit in the world and think how much I long to feed the hungry…I wish no ill will to anyone, and your words warmed my heart!

        On the topic of Monsanto, they do believe in their products as their potential to help the world. The products they sell are very clearly marked as GMO — any ambiguity actually occurs when the crops are then redistributed to the public as a more processed food. (Processing doesn’t just lead to junk food. Fruit has to be “processed” to be turned into juice, and flours are “processed” when they are ground. That’s the context of processing I’m referring to.)

        The food system is conplicated, but I’m very glad there are so many people willing to navigate it and learn more. And I’m glad to be a part of your conversations about it!

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    3. Kelly, thanks for your last post. I’m glad my words warmed you … we’re all in this together in one way or another, trying to make a better world for ourselves and future generations. I admire farmers’ desire to feed others and I know that they’re trying their hardest to respond to an incredibly overwhelming demand. Thanks the Monsanto info … good point, I wasn’t even thinking about processed foods (duh), but what you’re saying makes perfect sense. I think one issue is, we’re stepping quickly into a futuristic world, which is scary to everyone and we want to be cautious, but at the same time, take advantage of these advances. Argh, speaking of advances, we need a cure for the common cold (sniff!). Anyway, thanks again. I’m sure I’ll be back with more questions and I appreciate all the information.

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      1. I do want to clarify, my family hasn’t farmed in about a decade. And I haven’t worked consistently on any farms for around two years. I work in communications now — I help farmers of all types share their stories, and I have the coolest job ever.

        I can agree that all this technology can be pretty daunting and seem really rapid-fire. It’s hard to make up and down of all the developments that have happened just in the last ten years! That’s why I encourage people to be proactive and informed about their food choices, and pick options that fit best to their needs, budget, and ethics. That’s why I get so excited when I have conversations like this one. Whatever choices you make about your food, you’re making an effort to gather information, and you’re doing it in a friendly manner.

        I love this. Thanks, Kay!

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    4. Kelly, I just meant to say more than “Thanks for your last post,” LOL. I appreciate the conversation too. My family no longer farms either and of course, what my parents did was very small scale compared to what Ryan and his family do. But either way, while I love animals, I also have an appreciation for the incredibly hard, dangerous work farmers do. You have to love it to be in it or go into it. And yes, as you said, we can all choose options food-wise that we’re comfortable with. Thanks for your nice post — appreciate it!

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  3. I’ve had similar conversations, even with my own family members. I have an uncle who’s very into natural foods and when agriculture came up in conversation he asked if I’d seen Food Inc. When I told him no, he said I couldn’t really talk about the topic until I’d seen the movie. Very frustrating, but good point about talking about common ground and leaving the door open with a card.

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    1. Anna, when I read your post, I realized we’re differentiating foods here — you said that your uncle is into “natural foods.” Shouldn’t all food be “natural”? And isn’t it strange that we divide food in such a manner? I’m not dissing you at all, please don’t take it that way. It just struck me when I read your post.

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      1. That’s a good point, Kay. My uncle has gotten into eating more unprocessed and organic foods. Natural is actually a label I try to steer from, as it can be mean so many things or nothing at all, and yet it’s easy to label so it popped into my head to describe my uncle’s food. I’m from an organic dairy myself and I’ve definitely noticed some of the ways labeling and differentiation can affect how we view foods.

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      2. That’s interesting, Anna. And you’re right, in terms of what’s in the store, “natural” can mean anything (I find it especially funny when I see it on a cereal box of not so natural ingredients). And you’re also right, it’s a term that pops into our heads as an umbrella for organic, additive-free, simple food, etc. I guess I’m amazed that we are so junk-food oriented that something like an apple, compared to a fruit roll-up, seems “unnatural.” It’s kind of backwards nowadays! Interesting re your farm … hope to hear more :). But, yes, labeling is tricky and we have to question everything on the store shelves, which is a drag.

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  4. I had an excellent food conversation with a “locavore” blogger yesterday while on a ranch and feedlot tour. I don’t think we agree on a single subject regarding food production (eating meat, the role of feedyards, GMOs, organic, local, etc.) but we did agree that we all need to seek to understand differing viewpoints on food production. If you approach a conversation seeking to understand rather than persuade it will be productive regardless of differences of opinion.

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