Advertisers bombard us with "what to eat" messages. Chefs become television stars talking about food. Doctors offer their views on consumption in media commentary daily. Scientists are brought into the discussion. Grocers and restaurateurs get their say. But what about the people who produce the food? Shouldn't farmers have a say in the food dialogues too?
That's what the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the Ohio Soybean Council and U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Council had in mind as they organized a "Food Dialogues" event in Columbus last month. In two panel discussion sessions a variety of sources were brought together to examine critical food issues. They participants included scientists, dieticians, restaurateurs, a nutritionist, a food blogger a food bank organizer, an environmental spokesman, and it included farmers.
Allen Armstrong, a grain farmer from South Charleston, Doug Billman, operator of Twinbill Jerseys, an organic dairy farm in Burbank, Pat Hord, CEO of Hord Livestock Co. in Bucyrus, and Ben Sippel a cattle, dairy, sheep and vegetable farmer from Mt. Gilead, gave a farm-based view to the food debate.
The first discussion session focused on "Biotechnology (GMOs) and Your Food." It was moderated by radio host Joel Riley from 610 WTVN radio in Columbus. In addition to Armstrong and Billman, panelists included, Andrew Michel, Ohio State University entomologist, Casey Hoy, Kellogg Endowed Chair in Agricultural Ecosystem Management at OSU, Mike Sopoko, Ohio restaurant Association board member and restaurant owner, Ruth MacDonald, Iowa State University nutritionist.
Michel immediately made the point that while the public perception is that corn and soybean crops have had genes inserted for herbicidal or insecticidal activity, the fact is that genetic modification has occurred in all plants and continues to occur naturally in all organisms. Billman raised the concern that his crops could be contaminated by GMO pollen. Hoy questioned whether GMO use fit into the concept of integrated pest management and what the intent of creating GMO crops was.
When the discussion turned to the debate over labeling GMO foods, MacDonald commented that it would not only add to costs, it would cause confusion at the supermarket. "People don't eat corn and soybeans – there are very few GMO foods available directly. (In meats) the protein in the (feed) crop is diluted out."
Restaurant owner Sopoko, responded to a question, "We do not hear concerns from customers. I have yet to be asked if we serve GMO foods."
The afternoon session focused on "Sustainability and Your Food." In addition to Hord and Sippel, the panelists included Joe Logan, director of the Ohio Environmental Council, Marty Matlock, University of Arkansas biological engineer, Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, with Ohio Association of Foodbanks and Stephanie Eakins, a food blogger.
Matlock pointed out that 43% of the earth's surface is devoted to agriculture. He warned that future growth would come from development of tropical lands and result in a loss in biodiversity. He warned that any return to subsistence farming would raise problems. "We need prosperity agriculture not subsistence agriculture," he said.
Hord and Sippel offered production contrasts. While Sippel farms 77 acres, he notes that to some of the food producers he markets with that is considered a large farm. Hord Livestock includes 2800 acres of grain production, 100 growing partners and 100 team members in the operation. "Our mission is feeding families through sustainable production," Hord said. "I'm excited by what Ben (Sippel) is doing. It takes types of producers. We need all hands on deck and we need to work together."
Hamler-Fugitt pointed out that 47 million Americans struggle to get the resources they need to feed themselves. She urged continuation government food programs. "To be a viable nation we need a secure agriculture. We subsidize our malls. Why not incentivize the ability to expand our agriculture."
Blogger Eakins noted that her readers wanted farmers to be able a food supply that was safe for humans, the environment and healthy for animals.