Did you see that full page ad in The New York Times last Wednesday? The one that asked, "Since when did agriculture become a dirty word?"
The ad, sponsored by a group called the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, promoted "The Food Dialogues," an online forum that bills itself as a "new effort to answer the biggest questions people have about farming and ranching and the future of food."
The questions are primarily from those critical of factory farm practices.
"Why are animals in feedlots treated so horribly?" posts Sueco.
Gail Flaherty writes, "Implement organic community farms across the country."
Todd wants to know, "What is keeping farmers from transitioning to a less fossil-fuel intensive agriculture?"
Kent from Idaho responded with an economic argument, the desire for cheap food: "I think most farmers would be entirely willing to use less fossil fuels if there were an economically-viable alternative available."
The specter of expensive food is frequently raised by the farmers and ranchers who have left comments on the site.
Weeks$ writes: "US farmers and ranchers work diligently to produce the most cost efficient, safest and diverse food supply in the world."
USAgrules defends current farming practices saying, "Technology leads to greater accessibility to healthy and affordable food for a greater population."
In answer to the forum's question, "What do you wish Americans had more information about when it comes to how their food is grown and raised?"
KF writes: "I would tell the average consumer that there is absolutely no need to worry about the food they are eating, whether their concerns be in animal safety to GMOs to new farm technology; you can be sure it's safe, tested and reliable."
Really, KF? Really?
I'm reading a report on a listeria outbreak caused by contaminated cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Colorado. Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says it's the deadliest outbreak of a food borne disease in more than a decade. So far, 13 people have died and 72 have been infected with listeriosis in 18 states.
Many comments, from both consumers and ranchers/farmers, are not inspiring dialogues at all; no one has yet added to the discussion. But here's one exchange I found.
Dennis writes, "I would imagine most of the squabbling about the use of genetic engineering and pesticides come from those countries with plenty of food or the resources to purchase them."
Ah, once again, the Cheap Food Defense.
Dennis goes on: "Ask the 10,000 people in the world who die of starvation every day what they think!"
Drew responded with a lengthy post, and here's one part of his rebuttal: "Not all crops evolved to grow in all climates and conditions and in areas where poor growing conditions occur -- all solutions must be examined and not just jumping to mutating a 'better' corn or soybean gene as the end-all solution. This simple-fix, take a pill or modify some genetics approach will not hold in a post-modern society."
I think it's great that farmers and ranchers are trying to talk to nervous foodies like me who are worried about the sustainability of modern factory farming practices. But I don't think it's going to move people from their points of view. It DOES make me a little more understanding of what farmers and ranchers think about what they do, and how they do it.
It's all about feeding the world, cheaply.
This dialogue also is not going to change the way most farmers farm. It's more likely that political decisions, subsidies and tax breaks, and consumer demand will.