Time Critiques Nation’s Food System

On the heels of “Food Inc.” comes “America's Food Crisis and How to Fix It," an article that appeared in Time magazine Aug. 2. The commentary is journalist Bryan Walsh’s take on the good, the bad and the ugly – scratch that, just the bad and the ugly – that is our country’s food supply.

Walsh describes the mechanics of the current U.S. agricultural industry as taking an unforgiving toll to the environment, animals and humans. He cites government subsidies, concentrated animal conditions, fertilizer/chemical treatments, antibiotic use and equipment output as contributing factors.

U.S. Food Policy blog posted about the article writing, “The report by Bryan Walsh is strongly worded, and the choice of sources for commentary seems daring.” Blog followers had mixed reviews.

One blogger wrote, “The Time magazine article is very far from objective journalism. It's an opinion piece, not credible reporting. It's rare to see such a one-sided article in a national medium. The article should be an embarrassment to Time.”

While another announced, “While I consider this article as ‘preaching to the choir’ as far as I am concerned, it's nice to see the mainstream media pick up on the food crisis in America. The way this article is presented, it spreads the tenements of the locavore movement without being too wonky or standoffish.”

To underscore the heightened interest of the subject even more, Twitter hosted a discussion session regarding the article Aug. 25. using its AgChat (#agchat) feature.

While Walsh does an excellent job lamenting about America’s “industrial style of food production,” he neglects to present both sides of the argument by citing the reasoning and advantages of our society’s food methodology.

The efficiency of the U.S. food system cannot be denied. Farmers today are producing more food on less land while 98 percent of farms are still family based, contradicting what most cynics try to make the public believe. The average farmer now feeds 129 Americans, compared with 19 people in 1940, according to Walsh’s article.

Responsible farming is thriving throughout the country. American Farmland Trust (AFT) is one of many nonprofit organizations dedicated to protecting our nation's strategic agricultural resources by promoting conservation farming techniques and policies.

Walsh says demand for meat and poultry worldwide is set to rise 25 percent by 2015, while at the same time admitting that sustainable food is pricier than conventional food.

How are producers supposed to meet this demand in a manner that is both economical and effective with organic farming alone? It is simply not feasible.

Our country’s food formula is deserving of more respect than it has been given as of late. Most American farmers are at work daily providing an abundant, affordable food supply while actively engaging in sustainable agriculture practices.

The Hand That Feeds U.S. is an educational resource for urban media about the importance of U.S. agriculture to the security and future of our country. The project provides information relevant to our nation's farming industry, while also seeking to combat the current misinformation-campaigns about food prices and renewable fuels.

Located at its Web site is a series of unpublished letters to the editor from ag-industry members, refuting farming misconceptions that have appeared in recent noteworthy publications. We would encourage farmers to have their voices heard by also writing letters to the editor. The letters posted at the link above serve as a perfect template to help you get started.

Will hyper attention to our nation’s food system result in any industry changes? Should the federal government publicly declare its opinion? What can farmers do to educate consumers and the media?

Ag Expos – An Industry Staple

The agricultural industry is a leader in self-promotion, boasting hundreds of national and international trade shows to bolster business.

Trade shows benefit the farming community in many ways. In addition to increasing name recognition and sales, they also forecast industry trends, introduce new products and services and provide business-to-business education and networking opportunities.

Ag exhibitions draw crowds of thousands in cities throughout the world all year long. These events can be so vast that large-scale media companies are sometimes hired to implement their planning and execution.

The 2008 World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif., covered 2.6 million square feet, drawing in 67 exhibitors and making a $1.2 billion economical impact.

The shows vary in size, scope and audience, ranging from regional to national to international and also differ from segment focused – the Exponut & Dried Fruit Show for example – to broad, as is the Midwest Ag Expo. Shows are either open to the public or are classified as “trade only,” indicating admission to industry members only.

In 2006, the International Show Of Agriculture, the industry’s largest trade show, brought 600,000 visitors to Paris, France. The 17th International Agriculture Exhibition, Agritech ’09, will be hosted in Bangalore, India, in December and is promising to surpass record ag-show attendance records.

This segment of the industry is so lucrative that at least one company specializes in arranging visitor travel and attendance logistics of agriculture-specific expos. AgriTours US is a premier tour-service provider, specializing in offering “personalized, high-quality, responsibly-priced tour service for agriculturally oriented travelers.”

A list of 2009 ag-related trade shows can be located at AgriTours US’ Web site. Additional agriculture shows can be found at http://www.biztradeshows.com/agriculture-food/.

Ag exhibitors can include suppliers of fertilizers and chemicals; storage, machinery and equipment companies; seed providers; storage and packing plants; food manufacturers and distributors; business consultants; government entities and banks and insurance representatives among others.

At these events, companies have the opportunity to introduce their products or services and can further educate consumers. This can be done with product sampling and demonstrations. They can also interact with industry affiliates to gauge competition or form business relationships.

Farmers, ranchers and industry members should be selective when opting to exhibit at trade shows. Exhibit fees, travel expenses and time away from day-to-day business priorities can be costly.

If industry members opt to attend a trade show, there are some suggestions worth following:

1. Be selective: Attend shows that make sense for your company in terms of geography, scope and price. If your company has a small budget for communication efforts, it makes more sense to attend a few, low-cost shows throughout the year that deal specifically with your product or service, rather than spending your entire budget on one extensive show with a pricy entry fee with hundreds of vendors that may overshadow your company. If your product or service is available only in one state or region, national and international shows may not be effective.

2. Have a versatile exhibit space: It is wise to create a display space that can be easily modified with detachable and attachable panels to tailor messaging based on the show. This saves money in the long run because an entire new board does not need to be created. Rather, it only needs amended.

3. Provide interaction: Exhibit booths with mere signage and brochures are boring. Visitors are more likely to stop by a display if it involves a free product give-a-way or product demo.

4. Set measurable goals: Aim for a specific number of client contacts or visitors to your booth; calculate completed surveys or the number of times a product or service was demonstrated.

Trade shows have proven to be very beneficial to today’s agriculture industry. As further advancements and technologies are realized throughout all industry segments, their potential as a business mechanism will only intensify.

Can other industries be as successful as the agriculture industry is in the expo realm? Do trade shows put farmers/ranchers/producers at a disadvantage by not attending? Have you attended or ever plan to attend an agriculture trade show?

Farmers and Philanthropists – Proposed tax incentives to stimulate food donations

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) is working to implement a tax code that would allow farmers to receive enhanced tax breaks for charitable donations.

The Good Samaritan Hunger Relief Tax Incentive Extension Act of 2009 was reintroduced by U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., June 22 to promote charitable food contributions by American farmers and ranchers. The current bill is set to expire in December.

"Despite the wealth of our country, affordable food prices and ongoing government food assistance programs, some people still have difficulty purchasing food for a proper diet," said AFBF President Bob Stallman in a letter to Congress.

America’s recession is further encouraging the bill’s passage, as the nation’s food banks report a 30-percent increase in need.

Only farmers and ranchers who use the accrual method of accounting may benefit from incentives for charitable donations of food. Bill supporters believe that an amended tax system with increased deductions could incite farmers to offer more of their surplus product to Americans in need. According to the California Farm Bureau Federation, the bill proposal increases the valuation to full market value of the donation and makes this provision a permanent part of the Internal Revenue Code.

"It has been my experience that farmers generally make the donation of food out of their desire to support their communities and the less fortunate, and any enhanced deduction was not the primary motivation of such a contribution," said Jim Bates, Fowler Packing Co. chief of financial operations and committee chair of Community Food Bank in Fresno, California. "The legislation does make it easier for farmers to take such an enhanced deduction and will result in increased donations of food should the bill pass."

Stallman concurs with Bates’ sentiment and notes the established benevolence of America’s farming community but believes more opportunity exists, “Many more would donate if they were able to bear the costs of harvesting, processing and transportation.”

The bill currently resides with the Committee on Finance.

Farm Share, a nonprofit organization based in Florida, recovers food that has been rejected in the retail sector because of minor imperfections and delivers excess food to social-service agencies throughout the eastern U.S. The organization asserts that its efforts “saves the farmers the added expense of disposal fees and related labor costs. In addition, field productivity is increased, sales are potentially increased as a result of product exposure, and food is donated and distributed to needy people without interfering with normal marketing channels.”

Feeding America, a nationwide network of member food banks, is America’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity. The organization provides tax breaks to corporate partners and details how entities can become involved. AFBF is an industry advocate of this aid organization.

To learn more and to voice your opinion about the bill, visit http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-s1313/actions_votes.

Would farmers respond to further tax breaks or is more motivation necessary? Should Congress consider similar legislation for other industry groups such as meatpacking companies and food processors and distributors? Should the federal government provide additional support to organizations such as Farm Share and Feeding America?

Food Inc. – Stirring the Pot

“You’ll never look at dinner the same way again” is “Food Inc.’s” tagline, a documentary with strong thoughts about corporate farming and the mechanics of the U.S. food system.

Director Robert Kenner created an aggressive film to offer Americans a detailed peek into food production from farm to plate. “Food Inc.” tackles several controversial issues related to our society’s food industry and unsubtly encourages vegetarianism and large-scale commercial organic production.

The documentary faults a food system dedicated to efficiency by highlighting divisive topics.

“Corn has conquered our world,” the film declares, citing that 90 percent of grocery-store goods contain corn or soybean ingredients, or both. The film contends that subsidizing such commodity crops is making the U.S. overweight. Consumers pay less for foods created from these food bases, which are higher in fat and calories, than they do for healthier options that are more costly to produce, preserve and store for farmers and companies.

“Food Inc.” also targets Monsanto, an agriculture company that sells seeds and other agricultural products, as monopolizing the seed industry. The company has patented multiple seed varieties that are staples within the industry. Monsanto is portrayed as an evil bully forcing farmers to purchase its seed to remain in business. The company is accused of wrongfully suing those that save and replant its year-to-year contracted seed instead of buying a new supply as legally obligated.

Of course Kenner showcases graphic scenes of animals in slaughterhouses and images of animals that are seemingly suffering on farms to lecture on the animal-cruelty angle.

Reactions have been mixed. Film critic Elizabeth Oppriecht wrote, “Personally? I left ‘Food, Inc.’, went straight to lunch and had a big ole’ fried-chicken salad. Much more reliable research should be and needs to be done to support or refute many of the insinuations made by the film. There are many obvious holes in the information presented.”

Advocates of the film include restaurant chain Chipotle, which is advertising the film throughout its nationwide locations, as well as cooking gurus Martha Stewart and Alice Walters and other celebrities.

Monsanto counteracted the “one-sided, biased” film with a Web site dedicated to presenting facts about misinformation presented by movie producers at (http://www.monsanto.com/foodinc/), where consumers can also e-mail the company with their questions. The company refutes an allegation that it declined to be interviewed and says that it actually invited the film crew to a trade show of which they chose not to attend.

“‘Food Inc.’ is counter-productive to the serious dialogue surrounding the critical topic of our nation’s food supply,” states the company’s Web site.

The documentary ends with a call-to-action for consumers, inciting them to practice animal-rights and environmentally conscious food purchasing with the motive, “You can change the world with every bite.”

Agriculture provides millions of industry-related jobs to Americans and is responsible for feeding not only our nation, but foreign countries as well. Corporate farming is designed to produce a low-cost, convenient and abundant food supply in a way that organic farming cannot compete with.

Will “Food Inc.” jeopardize the success of meatpacking companies and commodity crops? Will the U.S. witness an influx of organic spending at the supermarket? Will the federal government attempt to modify food-production laws?