It is a complaint I hear from farm folks all the time, “People just don’t understand where their food comes from.” It is a complaint I have heard for the past 35 years. I gave me first speech on agriculture in 1982 at the University of Missouri. The subject was how to better communicate about food and agriculture to consumers. It was full of lots of well-meaning and practical ideas, that in retrospect really didn’t mean a thing. Although today there is a lot more talk between farmers and consumers about how food is produced and where it comes from, I don’t think we have moved the needle very much.
Proof of this can be found in a survey recently done by Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy. The national survey reveals that 7% of all American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. While not a huge number, it still works out to 16.4 million misinformed adults. This is really nothing new. As far back as 1990, a study found that nearly 1 in 5 adults did not know that hamburgers are made from beef. The situation is even worse when you go into the classroom. Research with K-12 students reveals that many don’t know French fries come from potatoes or that pickles are actually cucumbers.
Promoting a better understanding of agriculture has been and remains a top priority for many farm organizations. Farm Bureau and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance are doing great work in this area. The Center for Food Integrity is helping the food industry with research that focuses what consumers are really thinking vs. the twaddle activist groups are spreading. While this important work needs to continue, we should not delude ourselves that one day the American consuming public will take up and say, “Oh, yes, I get it now.”
The main reason most American consumers will never have a deep understanding of the food they eat is that they don’t have to. Our food is so affordable, available, safe, and reliable that most people give it little thought. Research by Wal-Mart indicates that most food choices are made in about 10 seconds. We have the time and money to purchase almost any kind of food we want. We don’t even have to know how to cook it! Meals come pre-packaged, ready to heat and eat. In some stores, they will cook it for you while you sip coffee in the Starbucks located within the store. You can get food at the gas station, the pharmacy, the dollar store, and even the hardware store. In most urban areas, food can be delivered to your door with a click on Amazon. Oh, and if you don’t have money, free food is as easy to get as SNAP.
The American food production and processing system is amazing, yet is not understood or appreciated by most consumers. We are so good at food production and distribution most people take us for granted. The fact that most Americans do not have to worry about where they will find food for their next meal is the reason they can gripe about what is in or not in their food. Quacksalver nutritionists and meshuga activist groups have used this to line their pockets with donations to solve problems that really don’t exist.
In China, the world’s largest economy, the middle-class has grown large enough and rich enough to demand better food. They want high-quality, corn-fed U.S. beef and pork instead of the water buffalo and fish heads they have been eating for the past few centuries. Thus, their government just struck a deal with the U.S. to import more beef. To my knowledge, HSUS, PETA, or CSPI do not have offices in Beijing.
American agriculture must continue to try to reach consumers with the story of agriculture and modern food production, if for no other reason than to counter the bilge that is spewed by food fear mongers. While the fact that some people think chocolate milk is produced by brown cows is laughable, as long as they keep drinking it and believe it is a safe and wholesome product, produced in a humane and environmentally sustainable way by dairy farmers, I am OK with that.
by Gary Truitt