Food has been elevated in consumer consciousness. Are we finally getting what we asked for?

The story of 2010: The Food Movement

Buckeye Farm News

Over the last half century, Americans left the farm in droves and didn’t care to look back.  The “food movement,” for some, represents an outright reversal of that trend.

Food has been elevated in consumer consciousness to the point that not only do more people want to know how their food was grown, transported, processed and prepared — many are trying their hand at doing at least part of it themselves.

One publication said the movement “has taken on the momentum of a religious revival.” The CEO of a national grocery chain recently proclaimed “Farmers are becoming heroes again.” And an article in Chicago Business recalled a scene in which a poultry farmer created “a buzz” when word got out he was in the restaurant where his chickens were being served.

Remarked one farming advocate, “This profession that people couldn’t wait to get out of 10 or 15 years ago was all of a sudden hip to be a part of.”

Heroes or villains

While examples like this abound, the movement has also brought with it a barrage of criticism.  In best-selling books, news reports and feature-length documentaries, as much as farmers have been hailed as the hero, they’ve been cast as the villain. In either case, it’s abundantly clear that food and farming have taken the spotlight.

To some extent, the food movement has been defined by extremes — an often clumsy and exaggerated narrative that has hope for humankind hanging in the balance between an agro-industrial complex and an organic heirloom tomato.

Its loudest voices decry what they see as profit-hungry agribusinesses that manipulate consumers through marketing spin and political conspiracy. An oft-repeated allegation is that inexpensive, mass-produced food takes a toll on the environment, animal welfare and human health. The conversation has been typified by a University of California, Berkeley professor delivering a critique of a Midwestern farmer to a suburban mother via the New York Times.

Not surprisingly, farmers bristled, and this renewed interest in food was written off in many agricultural circles as idealistic at best, obnoxious and elitist at worst.

Consumer Trust?

However, the sustaining force within the food movement is not a revolution of hard-line activists. It is a growing number of everyday consumers who, reasonably enough, want to be engaged in a real conversation about how a meal arrives on their plate.

According to new research from the Center for Food Integrity, consumer trust is slipping. The center found that a core consumer demographic was “deeply skeptical and distrustful of claims that improvements in technology and innovation in food production and processing are beneficial to the health and welfare of consumers, the environment or animal well-being.”

Additionally, they “had difficulty accepting that food production must increase in efficiency to feed a growing population, because they feel this will further industrialize agriculture and probably make food less healthy.”

And while they were concerned about food prices, these consumers equated cheap food with low quality food. Ensuring that developing countries had enough to eat ranked lowest on a list of concerns – behind food safety, humane animal treatment, obesity in America and other social issues such as the economy and health care costs.

In one striking example, animal rights groups were among the most credible sources of information on animal care issues. Both large farmers and small farmers were trusted the least.

And while consumers still generally hold farmers in high esteem, the Center for Food Integrity’s Terry Fleck has said “they’re not sure what you’re doing today is ‘farming.’”

A seat at the table

Consider that corn, for example, is no longer just a commodity.  To consumers, it’s an ingredient.  They see it in their Big Mac and in their can of Coke. Farmers may sell it to the grain elevator, but consumers are wondering if they should buy it. Right or wrong, they’re connecting their purchase to a host of other issues from water quality to land use to farm policy to animal health.  And they’ll almost certainly favor more rules before abandoning a favored food.

As Fleck put it: “Our social license to produce food hangs in the balance.”

So it might be good business sense for farmers to keep the keys to the combine, but offer consumers a seat at the table instead.

Ohio Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Jack Fisher wrote earlier this year, “Without knowledge about production realities, a consumer might ask for the impossible. Without understanding a consumer’s wishes, a farmer might fall short of expectations. That’s when worlds collide.”

All of this is ultimately aimed at a practical outcome: When consumers gain trust in farmers, the natural result is limited regulation, greater farm profitability, new marketing opportunities, a defused activist agenda, and, who knows, maybe even a well-deserved “thank you” from a well-fed nation.

Otherwise, we might get just the opposite.


From activists to analysts to advocates, we seem to agree: The national conversation about food is just beginning…

A snapshot of food movement headlines from 2010

And many, many more…

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