Food debates become public relations battles

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November 19th, 2012

By Sandhya Dirks

IOWA – The debate surrounding what we eat and how it’s made is nothing new. But the various sides are reaching out in new ways and in new places. Even when the opposing camps actually reach out to each other, though, middle ground is still proving hard to find.

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Recently, many farmers and livestock producers have found themselves battling environmental and animal welfare groups. But the separate factions aren’t always at each other’s throats as Paul Willis, founder of the Niman Ranch Pork Company, demonstrated earlier this year.

On a steamy late summer day Willis gave a special tour of his Thornton, Iowa, hog farm. Amidst hogs milling around in an open pen Willis showed Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, how he does things.

Iowa hog farmer Paul Willis shows visitors around his operation near the town of Thornton. (Photo by Sandhya Dirks, Harvest Public Media)

Pacelle is on the frontlines of the great crate debate — what hog producers call gestation crates, and the Humane Society calls confinement crates on factory farms. As part of a new tactic, Pacelle is taking his message directly to farm country.

On the tour, Willis explained he doesn’t use gestation crates.

“I went in one of those buildings once, an early one,” Willis said. “And I thought if this is the way to raise pigs, I’m not doing it.”

By releasing videos depicting stomach-turning scenes from confinement operations, Pacelle and the Humane Society have been successful in getting fast food restaurants like McDonalds and food providers like Sysco to promise not to carry pork produced in confinement farms. Now, Pacelle is working to bring more farmers on board.

“With all of these retailers saying that they don’t want any part of that in the future, it’s inevitable,” Pacelle said. “It’s now just a question of ‘Are we going to have an orderly transition or are we going to continue have a fight about it?’”

Hugh Whaley, the head of the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), says his organization will continue to fight to use the practices it deems necessary.

“We will be more than happy to sit down and discuss food, food production with any individual that recognizes the need and the right for all forms of production agriculture to exist,” Whaley said.
Whaley says they will only talk with groups that promise to keep all farming practices on the table. It is a nice way of saying the food wars are still very much on. USFRA is a coalition of farmers and ag groups who came together two years ago to advocate for farm interests.

“By and large, we were not being asked to enter and engage in the conversation about food,” Whaley said. “So we decided to take matters into our own hands and collectively come together.”

Whaley says food producers have been misrepresented and the food industry is partially to blame – for too long the knee-jerk reaction of those in agriculture and agro-business was to close ranks. Whaley says that’s got to stop and journalist Michael Pollan agrees.

“What’s happened in the food industry is that the way food was produced has disappeared for about forty years from public view,” Pollen said. “Only people who grew the food knew how it was grown. And now there’s a great deal of interest. So these people feel they have the hot breath of the eater looking over their shoulder and that’s making them really uncomfortable.”

Pollan is the one of the voices that helped fuel that hot breath, first as a reporter for the New York Times and now as the author of books such as “The Omnivores Dilemma.” He says it only makes sense – conventional food is a multibillion dollar industry and they’ve taken a hit from bad publicity.

“Basically, they feel that shutting up has not served them well and that letting people like me and these humane activists tell their stories is worse than giving interviews and telling their own stories,” Pollan said.

That’s why USFRA is hosting events they call “food dialogues” not in the heartland, but on the coasts—like Los Angeles, and most recently New York. And USFRA is using other techniques, like training farmers to talk with the media.

One of those farmers is Stacey Pellet. USFRA sent Pellet to San Francisco to learn how to talk to the media, and how to talk to people who think of big farms as a bad thing.

“I’m well educated in talking with people, but what they really taught me was how to understand where they are coming from, and the position – or the viewpoint that they have – and to find something that is relatable to where I am coming from so that we can meet on common ground,” Pellet said. “Because really, I don’t think that in most cases were on such opposite sides of the fence.”
As Pellet drove around her family’s farm, she explained that her biggest tool is to talk from personal experience, as a mother and a farmer. She says the people who criticize farmers often don’t understand what it means to make food.

“People sometimes think of it as a corporate environment, or if you get large you are no longer a family farm,” Pellet said. “But we are a family farm whether we farm 10 acres or 10,000 acres.”
Farmer Paul Willis says changes in agribusiness haven’t just changed relationships with consumers, they’ve even changed how farmers think about farming.

“ A lot of these skills are passed from one generation to the next,” Willis said. “I’ve actually had agriculture classes of farm kids, we had a group of about 20, and none of these kids all grown up on a farm had ever seen a pig outdoors before. So that’s a concern.”

As the debate continues, the future of how we farm and what we eat is up for grabs.

Harvest Public Media, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, reports on issues of food, fuel and field across the Midwest.

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