In 1897, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant in Manhattan, was asked by his then eight-year-old daughter, Virginia, whether Santa Claus really existed. O’Hanlon suggested she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time, assuring her that “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” The task of responding to Virginia’s question fell to Francis Pharcellus Church, an editor at the paper who took the opportunity to rise above the simple question and to address the philosophical issues behind it. His response became a journalistic classic and his headline, “Yes Virginia There is a Santa Claus,” has become a lexicon in American culture. Today Virginia’s question and Church’s response can be applied to the issue of food safety and modern agriculture.
Virginia was prompted to write her letter because several of her friends had told her Santa was not real. If she had written today, her question may have been, “Is the food my mom serves me safe?” She would have likely had some of her friends and her mom’s friends tell her it was not. They would have told her that her food was filled with chemicals, drugs, and genetically modified organisms. Just as Church said in his letter, “Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.” Today this is at the heart of the problem with consumer trust in their food supply; they are skeptical of what they do not understand or comprehend. Since most consumers have little experience with food production or comprehension of modern agriculture, this is not surprising. Even when the facts are presented and government agencies say food items are safe, the “skepticism of a skeptical age” keeps them from believing it.
Church, in his response to Virginia, described what the world would be like without the hope, love, and joy that Santa represents, “Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight.” Alas, Virginia, what would your food supply be like if there were not the bounty, efficiency, and technology that is involved in our food supply today? It would certainly not be as plentiful, varied, convenient, tasty, safe, nutritious, and affordable. Without modern agriculture, our food supply would be similar to what it was in 1897. In addition, a large number of your friends, Virginia, would live on farms because it would take a much larger portion of the U.S. population to produce enough food.
Church urged Virginia to have faith in the world, “Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.” Fortunately, when it comes to food, we do not have to take its safety on faith. Research, regulations, and science can give us verifiable proof about our food. The trick is to put our faith in facts that are real and not in those that are simply made up.
Virginia’s father had her write her letter to the newspaper in the belief that, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Today, she would have posted her query about food safety on Facebook or tweeted it on Twitter. Because, if it is on the internet, then it is so. Unfortunately, the response would not likely have been thoughtful and classic prose, but would have been rather snide, rude, and contained slams against Monsanto. Yes, Virginia, we still live in a skeptical age.
Yes, Virginia, your food is safe, so feel free to enjoy it this holiday. Be sure to leave some out for Santa. Despite what you might read on the internet, Santa is not a vegan, does not have any allergies or gluten issues, and is not lactose intolerant.
Tidings of comfort and joy from all of us at Hoosier Ag Today
By Gary Truitt