Cyndi's Two Cents

Let consumer choose


Last week’s USDA annual outlook conference in Washington, D.C. was a bit of an eye-opener for some in attendance. Tim Burrack who chairs the Iowa Corn Promotion Board expressed concern about what he heard at the conference, but told Ken Anderson from Brownfield Ag News that he is not really surprised.

Burrack’s concern? USDA’s shift in emphasis toward locally grown and organic foods.

Now hold on, he didn’t say that he is opposed to farmers choosing to grow organic or consumers buying locally grown foods. The Arlington, Iowa farmer says modern agriculture came under attack from many conference speakers and attendees. He explained that the direction from USDA is different than what has taken place in the first 36 years of his farming career.

Tim Burrack is a man of action, so he shared his concerns. “I just got up and told them, this is not the USDA that the people in the Midwest are familiar with.” Specifically, he told Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who is leading the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program, what he thought.

Merrigan assured Burrack that USDA is big; there’s room for everybody. Burrack said he understands that that is the new reality that everyone needs to work under. His concern is that under this new reality, traditional production agriculture which has provided a safe and low-cost food supply will suffer.

At this time, the move toward locally produced food continues to grow. According to new research from food and grocery analysts IGD, almost a third of shoppers say they have specifically purchased locally produced food over the last month, double the number in 2006.

So then what becomes of that safe and low-cost food supply? I believe Burrack is on target when he says moving away from traditional agriculture will likely mean higher prices for food.

Tim Burrack was amazed at number of people – some who work for USDA and others who were just attending the USDA conference like he was – who said, “Thank you for saying what a lot of us are thinking.” At the same, Burrack says it’s apparent that those opposed to modern agriculture are feeling very emboldened by the Obama administration’s policies.

When researching cost-share opportunities through a USDA program, you’ll find that if you grow 100% organic or agree to be 100% organic in the next 3 years, your share for the cost of a high tunnel is much less than if you are a non-organic (traditional) grower.

What I find to be very interesting and somewhat disturbing is the use of key words or phrases that make people feel good about their “locally produced” food purchases and guilty about “traditional” purchases. IGD uses phrases like “ethically produced foods” and “thinking morally and buying locally.”

Does that mean a consumer who does not choose to buy locally produced foods is unethical and immoral? You can bet that there are some who believe this to be true.

When asked about food they have specifically purchased over the last month, IGD reports that shoppers responded:

• 30% said locally produced food (up from 15% in 2006)

• 27% Fair-trade products (up from 9%)

• 18% products with high animal welfare standards (up from 11%)

According to IGD research, many consumers purchase locally produced food not only to obtain the freshest produce, but because they have a strong desire to support local jobs, farms and stores. Perhaps “traditional agriculture” should do a better job of educating consumers about the positive impact farms of all shapes and sizes have in their local communities.

Tell your story and let the consumer choose.

  • interesting that the amount of chemicals used in “traditional agriculture” is not mentioned at all in any of these arguments. i go to any lengths to avoid chemicals and therefore seek out local foods and products because i know which of my neighbor farmers avoids them and uses more holistic methods. i sure wish there was honest debate on this instead of cherry-picking items for discussion.. and higher prices?? i rather pay that premium and know i am not poisoning myself.

  • The people are choosing. They are choosing foods that are grow without nasty chemicals & purchasing food with a smaller carbon footprint.
    Bih Ag is just that – BIG. As such, why are they getting supports from the USDA? Modern farming isn’t doing our nation any good health-wise. So stop co-opting the word “traditional” as meaning non-organic, there is nothing traditional about poisoned food. Organic farming has been going on a lot longer than this modern heresy, and it’s time the BIG operations realize that we don’t want what they are selling and even more so, we don’t want our tax dollars to support what they are growing.
    We are voting at the grocery store and at farmer’s markets and CSAs and direct to our local farms. IGA needs to realize that all food does not come from a supermarket.

  • Another thing that is not discussed here is that so called ‘traditional’ agriculture in the US often embraces the use of GMO seeds. There is growing outrage in this country over the use of GMO’s for good reason. not only have they not proven to be safe but there is mounting evidence that they are indeed harmful. Monsanto, the largest supplier of these seeds states that it is the government’s not Monsanto’s responsibility to ensure their safety.

    Also, the use of these Roundup ready Genetically Modified seeds allows ‘traditional agriculture’ to use greater amounts of herbicides on their crops, thus making those crops LESS safe not more.
    Organic farms don’t grow Genetically Modified crops and i doubt any small, local farms who are not organic use them either.

    Buying local also means fresher food, less fuel for transportation, and support for your local economy.

    Before chemical agriculture came along ‘Traditional Agriculture’ was in fact organic agriculture.

  • First Cindy, great article. I appreciate your point of view on this topic. I’m a big believer in the idea that a big tent can hold multiple methods of production. I’m continually frustrated by the media’s way of pitting organic/local against “traditional,” modern, conventional, whatever you choose to call it. There’s room, and need, for all methods. Unfortunately, when you start placing ethical and moral labels around these methods, it’s misleading and an oversimplification of the differences in agriculture.

    Secondly, to Glenn’s comment, Monsanto does believe it’s our legal, moral and ethical responsibility to make sure our products are safe. The comment you are probably referring to is one made by a previous employee (one who hasn’t worked here in at least 10 years) about what the FDA’s responsibility is. That doesn’t mean we don’t conduct rigorous safety testing. That’s why it takes 8-10 years to get a biotech product to market. My son is currently 1. Products we are working on today won’t be available until he is in 4th grade. That time is largely due to the amount of safety testing and scientific study involved. I can’t think of another food product in the world that would take that much study.

    I’m not sure where the statement “they have not proven to be safe” comes from. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The burden of proof is to show they are safe before they are put on the market.

    We have more details on food safety testing here on our Monsanto Web site:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Glenn’s comments on buying local, especially in terms of supporting the economy. I just don’t think that should be limited to only local, organic farmers. It’s also important to know our local conventional or traditional farmers and to understand their practices.

    Traditional agriculture may have been organic at one time, but it sure didn’t support as many people as it does now. And that’s thanks to our hardworking farmers and ranchers, and yes, even advances in technology, machinery and chemicals.

  • In Canada, consumer research has separated what consumers say they purchase, from what they actually purchase, and has found that the consumer may claim to buy local, organic, ethical etc. but when observed they will usually purchase the cheapest food. This needs to be addressed. How much more will consumers pay of their disposable income toward food, under recession or increasing expenses (rents, mortgages, insurance) and a desire for other consumer goods (clothes, cars, electronics). There may also be a hidden bias in comparing current consumer preferences to those of a few years ago because there is increased awareness in the media over these issues, and depending how the data is collected, the consumer may be giving the answer they think is more “moral”.

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