Turning the Food Fight into a constructive conversation: The US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance Food Dialogs

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

In contrast to the pitched battles that take place almost daily on newspaper pages and television shows between environmental and food groups and the farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses that produce the food–farmers staged a unique media event on September 22 that offered a different approach.

Held in town hall meeting style in four locations across the country on September 22, the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) Food Dialogs drew together panels of experts who could raise the questions about food and farming that are most pressing in the minds of consumers and environmental advocates. The questions were asked and answered in an atmosphere of open discussion without fear of attack rhetoric. The panels responded to questions from studio audiences right in front of them, and to questions submitted via social media from locations throughout the country.

​“Americans have a lot of questions about where their food comes from, how it is raised and if it is good for their health long-term,” said Bob Stallman, chairman of USFRA and president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “USFRA commissioned two separate surveys to first ask farmers and ranchers what they wished Americans could have more information about where their food comes from. We then asked consumers what questions they have on the same topic. The findings of both surveys indicate there is an opportunity for more dialogue between farmers, ranchers and the American public about how food is grown and raised in the U.S.”

Panels took place in Washington, DC; New York City; Davis, California; and Fair Oaks, Indiana.

In the Washington DC panel, for instance, Tres Bailey, the director of Agriculture and Food for Walmart sat side-by-side with Kathi Brock of the American Humane Association’s Farm Animal program and Jason Clay, senior vice president for market transformation for World Wildlife Fund. Stallman, brought the farmer’s perspective to the discussion, which was carried live by web broadcast. Other Washington panelists were former US Ag Secretary Dan Glickman and Frank DiPasquale, CEO of School Nutrition Association. Current Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack also made an appearance at the Washington town hall meeting.

Participants raised questions about whether to consider food a national security issue in the same way that energy self-reliance has become a key concept. Use of resources, in particular water, became a discussion point. One audience member asked about whether farmers could provide more transparency to the public–to show how they raise crops and animals. Another asked whether it was fair or appropriate to set school menus to curb obesity when it means that the 65 percent of non-obese children cannot enjoy two of their favorite vegetables — corn and potatoes — more than once a week in school menus.

Stallman noted that this forum would become a means for farmers and ranchers to better understand what the public would like to know about how their food is produced.

Locally, the University of Minnesota’s Ag Education Club, as well as Minnesota Farm Bureau, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and Minnesota Corn Growers Association all supported a viewing party at University of Minnesota’s Cargill Center for Plant and Microbial Genomics. Representatives of farm organizations and state government were among the attendees.

Local panelists included State Rep. Al Juhnke, ranking democrat on the House agriculture committee, State Senator Doug Magnus; Kirby Schmitt, a representative of the University of Minnesota Agriculture Education Club and others. Farm Radio newsman Tom Rothman served as moderator.

The entire proceedings of the Food Dialog town hall meetings can be viewed at www.fooddialogues.com

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