Jolley: Five Minutes with Michele Payn-Knoper and the food fight

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The public has been reciting a ridiculous litany of late. The words have been written by “Food, Inc. Foodopoly. Fast Food Nation. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Meatrix. Super Size Me.” The message is consistent; food is generally bad for you and agriculture is the enabler. Farm animals are almost always abused and the food we grow is merely processed to make us fat.

Books and movies that harangue the way we grow our food and the way we eat are hot properties. The press promotes them and the public seems to (forgive me) eat them up. They are the modern creators of pop culture and they’re responsible for the way millions of people perceive what farmers and ranchers do.

So, who’s talking back? Who is trying to sit the record straight by speaking rationally and encouraging dialogue instead of the all too insane monologues we’ve witnessed in to many books and movies?

Michele Payn-KnoperMichele Payn-Knoper Michele Payn-Knoper is taking that first step with her book No More Food Fights! She’s been a leader in introducing the ag community to the power of social media. One of North America’s leading farm and food advocates and a resource for people interested in agriculture and food, she speaks around the country about community building programs.

The book doesn’t take an antagonistic approach, instead it encourages people on both sides of American culture – rural and urban – to connect with each other by developing an understanding of “hot buttons,” those things that are important to each group and might lead to a meaningful dialogue. 

Could this book reach the critical mass of something written bythe likes of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser? It should but she bypasses the usual sensationalism which helped propel their books to best seller lists. Let’s hope there is room and an audience for quiet discourse.

Q. Michele, let’s talk about the difference between talking with others as opposed to talking at others. The discussion about where our food comes from and how it should be prepared/processed/cooked/delivered to the consumer seems to be disintegrating into the same kind of name-calling and recriminations we witnessed during the recent presidential election. What has caused this very wide division between producer and consumer?

A. The name-calling and blatant divide in the food plate motivated me to finally write No More Food Fights! after 11 years of working in farm and food advocacy. The lack of trust and decorum around today's hot issues reminds me of people throwing rotten vegetables, so the title seemed like a natural. Food is quickly becoming the new religion or politics—a topic not to be discussed, for fear of offending someone. We all eat. I believe food should be celebrated.

The division in the food plate is the result of several familiar forces, such as generations being removed from the farm, the 24/7 availability of food, the constant drum of activists berating some facet of agriculture and social pressures. However, the disconnect is also caused by farmers and ranchers not standing up to tell their story until they're mad enough to be in defense mode.

The book’s design lends itself to exploring both sides of the issue. One side of No More Food Fights! offers six senses for those who primarily consume food­—chefs, healthcare professionals, foodies, dietitians and retailers. Flipping the book reveals the other side, which features 6 ½ steps geared toward those who produce food—farmers, agribusinesses and ranchers.

Q. Two of the most controversial issues are animal welfare and biotechnology. We’re witnessing an almost monthly stream of videos of horrible abuse taken ‘under cover’ by groups like PETA, HSUS and Mercy for Animals.  What’s been the effect on the public’s perception of agricultural practices and how can it be countered?

A. No More Food Fights! gets into these issues—as well as other hot topics—on the food side of the book, where farmers and animal care experts share their own perspective. The videos aren't going to stop, as activists are determined to shock the public. I have found that the response to those videos is mitigated when a viewer knows a farmer and can reference what that farmer has told them about animal care. A relationship with a farmer or rancher, whether in real life or virtual, causes the viewer to stop and question the validity of the video.

The book cites research by USFRA and others that show people still trust farmers, but don't trust the act of farming. We need to do a better job helping people understand the practices of farming and ranching. Working with animals involves dirt, sweat and blood; I included a couple of my personal stories about the struggles of working with cattle to try to demonstrate how to connect in a way that positions a farmer to be seen as a human, not a profit-driven thug.

Q. Biotechnology is being attacked on several levels. There is a continuous drumbeat against ‘big’ agribusinesses that promote biotech, and an even louder drumbeat calling the food products that contain biotech produced ingredients as bad for your health. Does biotechnology serve a real purpose?

A. It boils down to choice. I believe farmers deserve choice, just as food buyers deserve choice. No More Food Fights! includes examples of from a farmer choosing to use biotechnology to reduce environmental impact and increase production, a chef who doesn't believe in biotech and a scientist explaining the background of biotech. I also attempt to explain why labeling biotechnology food would be so difficult and costly. Interestingly, I found very few explanations of why many in agriculture are against biotech labeling and even fewer details about the complexity of labeling.

I do believe in the value of biotechnology—and would point to the yield results from the drought of 2012 as an example of why—yet I also know we must do a better job of explaining this tool to our friends and neighbors. Consider the fear put into suburban mom who has never met a farmer when she hears "genetically modified organism." Words matter, but our ability to stand up and explain why we choose to use different practices is also critical -only after we try to genuinely listen to the concerns of mainstream.

Q. So many foodies seem to have a fondness for the stereotypical and non-existent farms that are found only on Hallmark cards – the nicely painted red barn, the white picket fence around the old farm house with a few chickens pecking around the front yard. Your new book describes something far different; we might call it high tech farming. You talk about “farmers who don’t wear overalls.” Is there an unbridgeable disconnect between urbanites who want to hang on to that romantic notion and the reality of modern farming?

A. Frankly, I think we need to take some responsibility for the romanticized view that some have of farming. If we reflect back over the last few decades, we haven't done our jobs. Sure, we've improved animal care, reduced environmental impact and improved efficiency—but we have not talked about how or why with the 98.5% of people not on a farm. Today's agriculture requires each of us to take the time on a daily basis to have a conversation with people around the food plate. I recommend 15 minutes/day to connect with others, whether it's having a conversation in your church parking lot, posting a photo on Instagram/Facebook with a descriptive caption, responding to a couple of blog posts, talking about how you're working cattle with your friends, or tweeting as a part of #FoodChat.

No More Food Fights! cites Center for Food Integrity studies that point out the importance of connecting on values. If agriculture connects on values and hot buttons—we bridge the divide. If we lead with science and technical farm talk, the disconnect becomes unbridgeable. I believe agriculture and anyone interested in food deserves better than that, don’t you?

Q. Talking with one another means conducting a two way, respectful conversation – urban dwellers respecting the agricultural community and vice versa. I’ve seen some very disrespectful comments coming from both sides. How do you convince these combatants to shake hands and come out NOT fighting?

A. Respectful conversation starts with a relationship and finding commonalities, and is often enriched by leveraging the power of a community. Focus your energy on the 70-80% in the middle, not the zealots or entrenched on either end of the spectrum. An example is a recent #AgChat on animal welfare. HSUS had sent out a message to encourage their followers to participate and even suggested some tweets. The ag community turned out with great energy, was able to have a positive conversation, and not be distracted by naysayers. This very visible type of conversation illustrated the type of hard-working, trustworthy people engaged in farming.  

It's not realistic to expect that people around the food plate will agree on every issue, but shaking hands is about having enough respect to agree to disagree on some points. I also remind people that agriculture is incredibly diverse; it takes more than just a farmer to get food to the plate. Connecting with the person beside you, such as farmer who chooses a different farming practice or a food scientist in the lab, can be just as valuable as reaching food buyers.

Q. Talking directly to people in animal agriculture – give us a half dozen ways we can engage our friends who are several generations away from the land? And maybe a half dozen ways not to go about it, too.

A. No More Food Fights! gives 6.5 steps to sharing the farm story: who, what, why, where, when, how and you. Each step is a chapter to provide a common sense plan that help readers figure out who they'd really like to focus on beyond the ag choir. Some will be more comfortable with school kids or media, while others will focus on elected officials. Answering the "what?" involves looking for your selected influencer group's hot button, which is a critical and often-missed step when ag is too worried about spewing science and research. I suggest the farm side of the plate back up and get to know what excites their influencer group - and understand not everyone's hot buttons revolve around farm or cattle. 

The third step is "why?" and relating to those hot buttons through shared values to speak the same language. In my opinion, this is where agriculture has failed in the past. We try to talk farming with people who can't relate, rather than approaching them as humans.  The "where", "when" and "how" chapters are simply about putting an action plan in place and determining where your community is. "You" is a chapter focusing on thought leadership for agriculture and putting individual passion for agriculture to work. 

My goal is to move people toward connecting at the center of the plate, which is the closing chapter - and the only one that is identical on the both sides of the book. Farmers and ranchers, along with chefs and dietitians, offer examples to give dimension to the 6.5 steps. I'd point to these 35+ contributors as case studies of ways to connect with those not on a farm or ranch. A half dozen from the "do not" list, which are positioned as rotten vegetables in the book, are: don't assume you need to educate (you may be the one who needs to be educated), don't wait to react to the next issue, don't go on the defensive when asked a questions about agriculture, don't dump science and data, don't forget to ask questions & listen, and don't pretend agriculture is perfect. 

Q. Thousands of people read Cattlenetwork. What would you like to say to them?

A. Please know that your voice is needed. This isn't about winning a battle; it's about protecting your future. Agriculture's ability to connect with others around the food plate will directly determine if you can choose to farm the way you see fit. Don't wait until the next nasty video, 'pink slime' case or claims about antibiotics. Today is your opportunity to lead the discussion - tomorrow is your opportunity to respond.

Take 15 minutes to proactively reach out to people with questions about their food. Figure out who it makes sense for you to personally focus on. Ask them questions. Demonstrate how much you care and why. Reaching across the plate does not mean we will agree on every issue, but it does mean that we care enough to make a connection. Hopefully No More Food Fights! will help you do that while growing a more productive conversation around farm and food.

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.

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Carole De Cosmo    
Arizona  |  January, 30, 2013 at 02:25 PM

I agree with Michelle. We in the ag industry must be a part of the conversation. There needs to be positive films that show food farming in a positive way.

Jennifer T    
February, 01, 2013 at 11:35 AM

Carole, I appreciate your remarks and agree that both sides need to offer straightforward information what what really happens. To that point, I don't think an objective of framing farming in a "positive" way is accomplishing that mission; those are actions intended to sway consumer opinions by the use of targeted information. The same can be true for the other side. Is providing honest, accurate and complete information a pie-in-the-sky idea? Maybe. But until both sides of the spectrum start being transparent, recognizing culpability and making strides toward impactful change, the consumer will continue to be the loser in the food chain equation.

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