Building Community At America's Table

Meal Five: The first thing I now know for sure that’s wrong with our food supply

- written by Ellen

This whole project began because of a breakfast held by a farmer and rancher group backed most noticeably by Monsanto (there were other Big Ag conglomerates, I didn’t much notice which because all my brain could process was M.O.N.S.A.N.T.O.). So, it’s a little odd, only on Meal Five, that Grant and I would find ourselves in St. Louis for a tour of Monsanto’s research facilities and, well, their home base.

Meal Five happened the night before this tour.

We ate at Niche, Gerard Craft’s amazing restaurant, with Ray Prock, dairyman from Meal Three, Mike Haley, (mostly) corn farmer from Ohio and Janice Person, PR from Monsanto.

And, not strangely, we started talking about, well, farming. Specifically, the farm bill, which was in the news at the same time as the trip because Congress just wasn’t passing it (so out of character!). It’s in the news again today, as I write, because in fact Congress let it expire. Shameful.

Mike and I had a little history on the topic. Earlier this summer, we found we had completely different sets of information about the Farm Bill. Not just perspectives, actual information.

Mike had been busy and his information about the bill didn’t include the controversial points relating to SNAP. As in, when I brought up how much SNAP was getting cut from the Senate’s version of the budget, Mike hadn’t even heard the news. As an urban dweller, SNAP is on my mind a lot because it impacts my neighbors and, for all intents and purposes, many of the people who live in my general community. The news I read helps me stay informed about the things that impact my community. Hungry children are part of my community.

Mike had a different take. He was more focused on crop insurance, which makes sense because it impacts him directly. The news he reads helps him learn about things that will impact his farm. Things like crop insurance.

I was floored that we had such different information about the very same Farm Bill. More than anything else, the conversation was an introduction to what I am seeing as one of the foundational problems with our food supply — and it isn’t food or agriculture or lobbying.

It’s information. Actual honest, unbiased information.

And the fact that no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t get your hands on it.

Take GMOs.

Are they an alarming cause for cancer? Not an alarming cause for cancer? Or possibly an alarming cause for cancer? Or just something in general we should be worried about because, well, we all know they’re bad, right?

Do I listen to the scientists? Do I believe the reporters? Which reporters? Which scientists? I at least do know I am not listening to the Twitters.

I frankly realized, in the weeks leading up to our Monsanto trip that I don’t know who to believe when it comes to just about anything about our food supply. It’s a ridiculous mess.

I also realized that the ridiculosity is one of the reasons we are all so angry with each other. We’ve stopped speaking the same language, it seems. We can’t even agree on what the term sustainability means, for the love of all things holy.

Here’s the thing: We used to all get information from essentially one source, say a Walter Cronkite. So, whether that news was right or wrong, we were all at least starting from the same place. And I’d say that back then the news was likely as right as it could have been; since back then, newsmen were interested in the respectability that came from honest-to-goodness, fourth-estate-inspired journalism.

Today, we are, increasingly, getting our news from sources we curate ourselves — like, say, whomever it is you don’t find too annoying to follow on Twitter or your friends’ collective Facebook stream. And when we do turn to the news, it’s more scaretainment than actual facts.

What that means, of course, is that we are likely learning from those who already agree with us. Which means, of course, that our ideas, no matter what they are, are continuously confirmed as right, and rightier, and even rightest. Which means, of course, that we get more invested in them. Which means, of course, that when we see more evidence that we were right, we get more entrenched in our opinions. Look at how right we are! My heavens! And on and on.

When (and if) we actually confront someone with ideas that are different than ours, they can seem like a complete wingnut. After all, we’ve read thousands of things that confirm every single thing we believe! How could they have missed all that!!!

(Hint: it is because they were too busy reading thousands of things that confirm their beliefs, even though they are diametrically opposed to yours.)

And at this point in the blog, I should propose a solution.

But I don’t have one.

Because the deeper I go on this quest to find answers, the more I realize how hard it is to try and get your hands on anything concrete. The more you try and get to the truth, the more you learn that the blogs you’ve been reading are shamefully biased and the experts you’ve been relying on are woefully unexperty and the organizations you’ve been wanting to trust are mired in so much red tape that there’s no way for anyone to even hope that we’re gonna untangle this food mess without some kind of extinction-level event.

But I can say this: by opening the door to a few folks, I am definitely starting to get a better grasp of the whole and not just a determined obsession with the part I believe in most. I am being led to more information and while some of it I believe and some of it I don’t, the more information I get my hands on, the better I can begin to frame my opinion. And the more solidly I can understand why others believe things differently, even if I don’t ultimately agree with their own take on things.

Which I guess leads me to the conclusion of this post: a recommendation.

I highly recommend taking the opportunity to discover, first hand, the shocking realization of just how detrimental it can be to intellectual thought in general when our citizenry can’t engage in discourse on a topic because we simply don’t access any kind of shared juried information. You have to step way outside your comfort zone to discover this. Say, if you are a die-hard Democrat, go seek out some Independents and Undecideds. Find a Republican who seems moderate and hang out with some Tea Partiers who don’t. And ask them all to tell you why they aren’t voting for Obama. Probe them to give you facts — they will. Don’t be judgey or interrupt or argue, just take it in. You’ll be amazed.

And maybe you’ll decide to do something about it, even just in your own life.

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25 responses

  1. I’d love to find a solution for this too… your recommendation is a good start and I’m big on taking in views from different perspectives. Respectful discussion and debate is something we can achieve if we try — just not sure out of journalists where I can turn for them to help facilitate that debate at times. This is truly a great project Ellen and Grant! Much respect to the two of you for starting something so unique and truly trying to change the course of conversations about food!

    October 3, 2012 at 11:21 am

    • elliecm

      Yes, the journalism. Much of it seems borderline shameful. I know they are good people trying to do good work. But ya know, I went to j-school and I am QUITE SURE I woulda failed a few classes if I turned in some of what I read these days as “journalism.” We don’t need ‘em anymore, though, right!?

      October 4, 2012 at 6:19 pm

      • I have two j-school degrees and I think journalism is something really different than what is practiced by most media. It makes it harder to find things that represent multiple viewpoints but nobody ever said life was easy so let’s do the work!

        October 4, 2012 at 9:06 pm

  2. elliecm

    Thanks, Janet, but I’ll admit that today, confronting yet another “scientific study” that is essential bunk but has been reported all over the damn place as truth has my blood boiling. And is making me sad in general. That said — I SHALL NOT BE DAUNTED!

    October 3, 2012 at 11:47 am

  3. I love this! I, too, really enjoy discussion with people who hold different views than mine. We all can learn something useful when we explore, keep an open mind and use common sense and manners. I am a sixth generation Ohio farmer and for years have felt we need to work together. People everywhere have the right to be free to make their own food choices. We should be happy to let them know where their food comes from and all the choices they have available to them. Farmers should also be free to farm how they feel best. I guess it all needs to be based on an honest conversation. I realize there are some dishonest folks out there, seems they are in all professions.
    Anyway, great blog!!!!
    Mendy Sellman

    October 3, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    • elliecm

      Thanks for reading, Mendy. We have a long way to go but, one person at a time, we’ll all make a difference! Thanks for reading.

      October 4, 2012 at 6:17 pm

  4. All bunk aside, Ellen I consider this the best piece of journalism regarding this topic I have read to date. No BS, just sheer admiration. Thank you.

    October 3, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    • elliecm

      HA! THANKS! Not sure it is journalism, but I’ll take it! Thanks for reading, Suzie.

      October 4, 2012 at 6:16 pm

      • Ellen, I used the word “journalism” in my comment for a purpose. I think this piece went well beyond the blog-o-sphere, this piece is important and needs to be seen by a much larger audience. It deserves to be in print.

        October 5, 2012 at 9:37 am

        • elliecm

          Wow! Thanks! I think you need to be my new best friend! So, that means Haley is out!!! Sorry, Mike.

          October 5, 2012 at 11:40 am

  5. Great post Ellen, I really enjoyed the conversation we had over dinner, a fabulous dinner. Dinner was so good I am amazed you were able to write a post about the dinner without discussing the food!

    Anyways, great thoughts and as you know I love talking to others with differing viewpoints as it helps me better understand their thoughts and allows me to grow as a person as well. Keep up the fantastic work!

    October 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    • elliecm

      HA! Occupational hazard! I eat like that all the time!

      It was, of course, amazing to finally meet you in person. Thank you for coming out and for introducing us to so many people and ideas.

      October 4, 2012 at 6:15 pm

  6. Rain

    Thank you, Ellen, for giving words to my own thought processes.

    October 3, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    • elliecm

      Thanks! It has taken a lot to get there. Nothing worse than having to give up ideas you are convinced are right! ugh! You have to admit you are wrong in the process!!! No, it has been a good, life-affirming process. Thanks for reading, Rain!

      October 4, 2012 at 6:14 pm

  7. Michelle Wiesbrook

    What an interesting project! I applaud your efforts! Your article is well said. I too have wondered how we can be so strongly divided when it comes to food, GMO’s, pesticides, agriculture in general, politics, etc. Related to that, I read an article today about some research that looks at the science behind why we are so divided on our values. Check it out: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-science-explains-americas-great-moral-divide&page=2. Keep in mind that this article is simply an interview with the author. I would imagine the nuts and bolts are explained in the book. Keep up the good work.

    October 4, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    • elliecm

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the link! I love reading books on this topic! Such learning! Thank you so much. E

      October 4, 2012 at 6:13 pm

  8. Dialogue is key!! VITAL AWARENESS is a farming advocacy group promoting humane farming practices and i like to believe that we provide a forum for all farmers to have dialogue on our FB page – whichever side of the farming fence they are on i.e. from the farmers who are completely humane, organic and sustainable to those who we would consider on the industrialized side of the fence. Unfortunately we can all become a little righteous about what we believe, and can engage in the behaviour whereby I will make you wrong to make myself right.

    October 5, 2012 at 5:52 am

    • elliecm

      Thanks for sharing your FB resource!

      October 5, 2012 at 7:07 am

  9. Here is a quote from a large cotton and wheat farmer in Texas who has seen your article and posted on his page in Facebook: “This is an exceptional writing concerning desimination of information and communication among diverse groups and sorting out what is correct. This touches more than agriculture.” I’m not alone in seeing the importance of this piece.

    October 5, 2012 at 10:47 am

    • elliecm

      Wow. Tell him thanks and … I Agree!!!

      October 5, 2012 at 11:39 am

  10. :( hey now, just cause she calls herself “Kissed a Farmer” does not mean you can throw meet like trash! Afterall my wife is a farmer too!

    October 6, 2012 at 5:19 pm

  11. Glad to see Mike get thrown to the curb first… more awesome food for me! :)

    October 6, 2012 at 6:37 pm

  12. Geez, just when I ran out of cheese!

    October 6, 2012 at 7:01 pm

  13. Hope it was good while it lasted. :-)

    October 6, 2012 at 10:38 pm

  14. Pingback: One request for the day | MetaCookbook

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