Americans’ Views of Industrial Agriculture By the Numbers

The popularity of Oscar-nominated Food, Inc. and writers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman make it clear that consumer interest in food and farming issues is now deeply embedded in the cultural mainstream.

And that’s not just my personal impression. Two brand new polls show a surprising degree of agreement on consumers’ concerns about the quality of food and how it’s produced, considering that one was commissioned by an environmentally-oriented foundation and the other by an organization that’s out to advance the interests of large scale agribusiness. I’ll come back to those results in a minute.

Shoppers’ buying habits reflect their growing interest in food quality and where it comes from. Healthy food-oriented chains such as Whole Foods are thriving, farmers’ markets are more prevalent than ever, and organically grown food is the fastest growing segment of the agriculture sector. Before long, it’s inevitable that consumers’ growing interest in food issues will start to affect their behavior in the voting booth as well.

Industrial agriculture has taken notice, as evidenced by the “Food Dialogues,” a series of panel discussions convened last week (Sept. 22) in four cities as part of a $30 million public relations campaign mounted by big agricultural interests. Billed as an effort to connect consumers with farmers and ranchers, the event was created by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, whose membership list is a who’s who of major industrial agriculture organizations across the country.

While the panelists were mostly sympathetic to industry, they included World Wildlife Fund’s Jason Clay and Roots of Change President Michael Dimock, who said many smart things about the sustainability of modern agriculture. The event triggered comprehensive reactions by rancher Jeff Fowle and author Anna Lappé, and a story in yesterday’s (Sept 28) New York Times.

The Alliance set limits on the scope of the “Dialogues,” keeping potentially divisive issues like the farm bill or the corn ethanol debacle off the agenda and thereby skirting the touchy topic of how government policies affect what we eat. That’s too bad, because the farm bill is especially relevant right now as the Super Committee budget cutters in Congress tasked with reigning in federal spending take a hard look at what farm programs to cut. Many informed observers believe the committee will effectively re-write the farm bill this fall, a full year ahead of schedule. (For a little context, check out Why the Farm Bill Matters.)

President Obamafarm state senators and commodity groups have already weighed in, underscoring the likely impact of the Super Committee’s work on the future of US food and farm policy. We at Environmental Working Group have also issued several of our own analyses of how the Super Committee could, and should, reform farm policy. And today, 56 conservation-oriented groups, including EWG, have come together to lay out a set of principles that should guide the panel’s deliberations.

That’s why the polling information I can tell you about here is important, because it’s a unique window into what American consumers are really thinking, not just what big agribusiness wants you to believe.

In July, the David & Lucile Packard Foundation commissioned the Benenson Strategy Group and Voter Consumer Research to conduct a survey of American attitudes on issues related to agriculture, the environment, and the federal budget. Here–for the first time anywhere–are some highlights of the findings, based on 1,200 telephone interviews conducted nationally. (The poll had an overall margin of error ±2.83 percent.)

  • 78 percent said making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and more accessible should be a top priority in the next farm bill.
  • Americans value conservation programs with environmental benefits more than programs with economic benefits such as job creation or recreation dollars.
  • 69 percent said reducing the use of chemicals that contribute to water pollution should also be a top priority.
  • 52 percent said subsidies for crops such as corn and soybeans should top the list of programs to be cut, and 49 percent named crop insurance as the next target. Only 31 percent ranked conservation programs as top targets for cuts and just 23 percent wanted to chop food aid for low income Americans.
  • 57 percent did not agree with cutting funding for farm conservation programs, saying they save money by preventing pollution.
  • 38 percent said protecting soil and farmland to ensure future food security should be the top priority of conservation initiatives, while 34 percent put protecting water quality at the top.
  • 60 percent said farmers should be required to meet environmental standards such as protecting water quality or soil health as a condition of receiving subsidy payments and subsidized crop insurance. That number jumped to 65 percent in the six biggest ethanol-producing states.
  • 75 percent said helping family farmers stay in business should be a top or high priority in agriculture policy and 31 percent would make it the top goal of subsidy programs.

The Alliance’s two polls, conducted in August by Ketchum Global Research Network and Braun Research, sampled an even larger number of consumers (a total of 2,417) and, separately, 1,002 farmer and ranchers. The polling was part of the preparation for the “Food Dialogues.” Their website offers only a limited sampling of the results, but in some ways the USFRA’s poll findings were consistent with what the Packard survey found:

  • 79 percent of consumers said “producing healthy choices… is very important for farmers and ranchers to consider when planning farming and ranching practices.”
  • 70 percent said their shopping decisions are affected by how food is grown and raised, although 72 percent said they “know nothing or very little” about it.
  • 73 percent of consumers were satisfied with the availability of healthy foods and 66 percent are satisfied with food safety standards, but, 42 percent said the U.S. is “off on the wrong track in the way we produce food,” as against 39 percent who said it’s “heading in the right direction.”
  • the five top topics consumers wanted more information about are, in order: how chemicals are used; how pesticides are used; food safety standards; effect of government regulations, and; how antibiotics are used/genetic engineering in crops.
  • according to an account in the online Hagstrom report, 42 percent of the consumers polled said the way food is produced has improved in the last 10 years, but 37 percent said it has worsened.
  • of those who said it has worsened, 1-in-5 cited its “environmental impact.”

If you want to influence how the next five years of farm policy are written, arm yourself with the Packard Poll results and head on over to EWG’s food and farm bill action center, where you can tell Congress that you won’t stand for industrial agriculture’s hold on the food system anymore.

 

Originally published on Environmental Working Group

5 thoughts on “Americans’ Views of Industrial Agriculture By the Numbers

  1. Who exactly are the industrial farmers? There are hundreds of thousands of regular farmers. The food movement people have little interest in us if we produce a commodity that is not sold locally. Not all farmers live near urban centers, farmers markets or even have the ability to mill their wheat to flour, process beef, bottle milk. These enterprises cost huge investments in time and money. However, if you are not a farmer selling to the local foods movement, foodies have little regard for you, the farmer or rancher. It didn’t used to be like this.

  2. I am surprised and very disappointed at the limited critique provided here of USFRA. I had only to watch the five minute video preceding the talk on the Future of Agriculture to recognize what this group represents. It is exactly as Myra Goodman says in the Times – their aim is to maintain the status quo, and even more so, to celebrate the abhorrent nature of modern-day agriculture. I was shocked that the CAFO owner in the video did so little to conceal his shameful practices – celebrating the pig pens that allow no room for movement; showing videos proudly of his pigs rolling around on linoleum floors, claiming that pigs can’t recover from a common cold. Disgusting.

    I couldn’t bear to listen to much of the panel discussion that followed, but I quickly predicted what was to come when I saw that the panelists include the VP of Agri Beef Co., whatever that is, who lauds the safety of our food system. Oh yeah, and the rep from Roots of Change, who was grossly outnumbered. I would also mention the laughably few women involved in these conversations, but no reason to point out the perpetuating and harmful nature of sexist thought in ranching and farming.

    I would expect more thoughtful and analytic insight into this new group from Civil Eats and from EWG, who theoretically promote change and improvement in our agricultural system. Letting USFRA get away with these “dialogues” un-critiqued is certainly not pursuant to that goal.

  3. I agree partly with AverageFarmer, but he seems not to understand that the food movement is strongly opposed to cheap corn and other cheap commodities. They favor higher farm prices. In this way they strongly support all farmers. Most big farm commodity groups and Farm Bureau, like the ones in the article, are spinning PR but really favor cheap farm prices through free trade and a farm bill without any supply management or price floors. Unfortunately the food movement, in spite of their verbal support for higher farm prices, thinks that getting rid of subsidies (free markets and free trade) is all that’s needed to accomplish the goal of keeping corn and other prices up. But these commodities don’t self correct in free markets, as abundant economic data confirms. Therefore farm programs must be run like a business, balancing supply and demand, and helping farmers to get fair trade prices (but also with fair trade price ceilings and reserve supplies to protect consumers). It’s great for farmers that the food movement favors fair trade price levels instead of cheap prices. Look to the National Family Farm Coalition, leading on these issues and rooted in the farm justice movements of history, to reconcile the two sides. Foodies and Farmies (farmers siding with those advocating for cheap prices) need better communication, more dialogue. The growing market for organic food and local food is good for farmers, but has achieved only tiny results for farming in general. For example, Cedar Rapids Iowa now has a large farmers market, (so farmers can reach a lot of customers once a month, instead of the huge marketing expenses of meeting a few customers several times per week). On the other hand, there have only been 4 (out of hundreds) farmers who have sold meat there, and that likely doesn’t represent all of their meat sales. Based upon my sales, it’s very likely that the market couldn’t yet support 20 meat farmers full time, maybe not even 10, etc.! So that’s not yet much of a solution. Out west, west of Iowa, cities are even smaller and farther away from the many farmers.

    Farmers have fought hard against cheap corn, wheat, cotton, rice, etc. for decades, but their political clout has been too small. Price floors were lowered 1953-1995, then eliminated (zero). Congress gave giant agribusiness buyers more and more of the below fair trade and even below cost farm commodities. Farmers got very partial compensations for the reductions, subsidies. Corn subsidies are 1/6 of the reductions below the fair trade standards of the past, and wheat subsidies are 1/5, etc. EWG sees only the compensations, not the much bigger reductions, and blames the first victims, farmers, not the corporate buyers who show no need and yet get the full 6/6 corn, 5/5 wheat etc. reduced prices, which subsidize them off the government books (not in EWG’s database, but 6x, 5x etc. bigger numbers). See also my exchange with Donald Carr on this article in his posting at EWG.

  4. Pingback: Haunts: It wasn’t Uncle Sam, it was Aunt Sammie (and all her women friends and kin) – women in and beyond the global

  5. Pingback: A Rose by Any Other Name: The Food 'Dialogues'