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 Obama, farm 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.