Splicing the Disconnect

By Chris McClure, Contributing Editor

The disconnection between people who live in the city and those who grow the food they eat continues to grow in spite of agricultural industry groups’ initiatives to counter that trend. It seemed apparent in the differences between the majority of voters in rural areas vs. those urban and suburban areas in their choice of political candidates for office during the recent mid-term elections. It’s as though the two different groups march to completely different sets of values.

Many agricultural industry groups have put forth concerted efforts on social media to counteract that trend, but frankly, it isn’t working. When I view posts about agriculture on Twitter or Facebook, I frequently see comments by others in the industry but rarely from those outside. It seems we are really good at reaching each other and missing the mark when it comes to reaching the intended audience who really needs to hear our stories.

Please don’t misunderstand; the efforts to engage on social media are good for the industry. Those on the anti-agriculture-as-we-know-it bandwagon have noticed the effort and changed tactics. Perhaps from that perspective, we can claim success for the campaign, but we still are not effectively reaching the average consumer who is being brainwashed into believing that “big” agriculture is bad for the environment, bad for your health and bad for our country. For many, we are still the bad guys, and the extremists pushing for banishing confined-animal feeding are wearing the white hats.

One thing we can do is to reach out to those with agricultural roots who have moved to the city for job opportunity and educate them to help carry the message to their co-workers, friends and family. We all know someone we grew up with who now works in a city somewhere. What message are they sharing when they hear the arguments against what we do for a living? Are they pushing back, or are they succumbing to the message of the antis?

We need always to be mindful of the fact that everything we do is ultimately for and about people. Although it is the animals within our care that take our time and attention, we do it to feed, clothe and otherwise ease the lives of people. The way we impact the environment is meaningless except for the impact it has on people. The way we spend our money is meaningless except for how it impacts people. Everything we do touches someone in a meaningful way. We must connect with people.

There is a tremendous amount of misinformation – or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, incomplete information. Several people within my circle of influence are dealing with physical issues that their physician attributes to their diet. One is told they shouldn’t eat red meat. The other is told they should eat only lean red meat. What is the answer? Both of them have very similar physical issues, and their medical advisors are giving each of them opposing advice.

I was listening to a radio program the other night as I was driving. It was an interview with a scientist who described how utilizing animals or vegetables for food would eventually become obsolete. His work was with bacteria. Apparently there are bacteria that can synthesize amino and fatty acids as well as other essential nutrients from sunlight, water and a very small amount of sugar. Those items can then be baked into a form that would taste, smell and have similar palatability to meats and vegetables with a greater concentration of essential nutrients.

In a world with uncontrolled urban expansion that is devouring agriculturally critical land mass, it may become necessary to utilize such technologies to provide adequate food for the growing population. I have read of such things in science fiction novels, but didn’t really expect it to happen within my lifetime.

Interestingly, in the same program, the very next interview was with a scientist examining fertility rates across the globe. It seems that most countries – even many in the underdeveloped world – are experiencing dramatically declining birth rates. Many countries are not producing enough babies to replace the number of people who die annually. Long term, the result will be a declining global population.

If I recall correctly, it was stated that the birth rate in Sweden is at one child per family on the low end and at seven children per family in Niger on the high end. Both rates were lower than previously reported. In Niger, the lower fertility rate is due to better health and lower infant mortality. If fewer babies die in infancy, there is less need for additional children to replace the lost family workforce in their primitive agriculturally based economy.

This past week I had the opportunity to visit with a group of research scientists developing new technologies for livestock production. Their focus was on DNA analytics for the better selection and management of animals to meet increasing demand for protein worldwide. Their efforts weren’t as much for the U.S. market where consumers are confused by so much misinformation, they were focused on the developing world, which is demanding more protein as their affluence grows.

We must maintain a global view to keep our perspective in production agriculture. Yes, we must continue to fight against the growing divide between the city dweller and the country dweller, but we also should take comfort in the fact that the world needs what we do. People need what we do. People drive our business. We must work to expand our relationships and not just “preach to the choir.” We need to engage those who are misinformed and those who are craving information.