Don't Blame Agriculture For A Food System Flawed By Fat

Nor' east Thinkin'

Our food system isn't broken. But our feed education system and personal responsibility are, and they're America's ugly, jiggly underbelly.

Published on: February 11, 2013

Listening to all the anti-everything-ag grumblers, you might think American agriculture is in terrible shape, that we haven't progressed beyond the pitch fork era. They seem intent on making sure Uncle Sam enacts more regulations to drive the food industry crazy – and out of this country.

Being a former farm kid and now long-toothed ag journalist, I've got a fork in this food fight. So I'll stab at the meat of this issue.

Since these "antis" have far too much time to tweet, chat, blog and otherwise spout opinions to the world, others assume they're knowledgeable – wrongly so! To kick off 2013 on a negative note, New York Times Columnist Mark Bittman took a shot at America's food system, tagging it as "hyper-industrial agriculture" that deserves to be un-invented.

The Opinionator columnist argued, with no sound evidence, that our food system is broken. It was a poke without punch. If Bittman had been in a boxing ring, he'd have been KO'd by the first counter-punch of truth. In this world of wide-ranging viewpoints, there's one thing we all can agree on: Half-vast knowledge is a dangerous thing.

The Web is full of it, as is the Times and bellyachers with hidden agendas masquerading as self-proclaimed experts. But these bellies ache with too much to eat – not too little. They sit behind desks or stand behind podiums wailing for change – failing to offer real solutions and blind to the technologies, research and innovations already developing.

Bittman was right that heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes kill more than a million people in this country a year – nearly half of all deaths. He was right that diet is a root cause of many of those diseases.

But we must pull the plug on his "rightness" at his assertion that contends our food system is making people obese and leaving many children hungry. Suggesting that our food system causes obesity and starvation is like saying guns kill people.

Actually, the brains behind the food carts drive the food system. U.S. consumers have far greater freedom of food choice than anywhere in the world. Trouble is, most of them flunked their high school nutrition courses or never took one.

So we have millions of people eating what tantalizes them most – starchy fries, sugary sweets and fatty meats. But don't blame the food system!

Today's ag is a game-changer

Agriculture is already responding magnificently to the obesity crisis. Fresh and local food promotional campaigns by farmers, state ag marketing agencies and food marketers have been accelerating for more than 10 years.

Nationwide growth of farmers markets more than doubled between 2000 and 2010. Two years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that more than 100,000 farms sold food directly to local consumers. Growth of fresh food sales continues to climb.

Many anti-ag activists scream out against genetic engineering. In fact, they've coerced the European Union to clamp down on the technologies.

But like them or not, these technologies are increasing crop yields while reducing plant nutrients needs. Drought-resistant corn, for instance, is still in early development. But U.S. farmers across much of the country harvested more because of it.

Boosting plant efficiencies of fertilizer and natural resources is an invaluable addition to traditional breeding methods. The same tools are being used to develop less toxic crop protectants plus a host of new food crops. And that spells a cleaner environment.

Further, technologies now being developed are the greatest hope for meeting world hunger needs by 2050. Every major ag biotech company in the world has committed to that end. Bayer, DuPont and Monsanto, to name a few are leading the effort with extensive investments in third-world nations.

So, Mr. Bittman, don't bad mouth agriculture with your mouth full.

Protect people from themselves?

Neither Uncle Sam nor New York City Mayor Bloomberg can invent and enforce enough laws to curb appetites in a free society. The answer has always been and still is education.

So I repeat my suggestion made amid the Bloomberg soda size fiasco: Rather than spending money on enforcement, invest, instead, in an aggressive public relations and education campaign on healthful eating. Countless savvy PR agencies would love to drink and eat that opportunity, and would be far more effective. Not sure about that?

If you watched the Super Bowl ads, you saw the mind-touching power of "Young Bud", the Budweiser Clydesdale and Ram truck's "the American Farmer" ad.

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  1. Rod says:

    John, good story, I think that you need to take a very close look at where your food comes from and what is in it.... Then produce a article about food, Big AG and the effects it has on people.

    • John Vogel says:

      Big Ag and successful farmers produce what consumers want -- good taste, which ususally means that fat and sugars are included. But we should be blaming anybody but consumers themselves for walking with a waddle.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Bravo John... nicely said. You had me laughing out loud with this line, "Being a former farm kid and now long-toothed ag journalist, I've got a fork in this food fight. So I'll stab at the meat of this issue."