Food Dialogues talk media, antibiotics, GMOs in New York
Foodies in the Big Apple got an earful when the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) brought its Food Dialogues event to their city.
USFRA’s “Food Dialogues: New York,” the third event of its kind, brought three panels of experts and commentators together in New York City recently. Panelists included representatives from agriculture, media (traditional and social), nutrition, health and consumer support to answer tough questions about food, food safety, antibiotics and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).
The event comprised three main topics: media representation of food issues, the ever hot-button topic of antibiotic use in food animals, and biotechnology in food, specifically GMOs. Each talk involved a wide panel of individuals from a wide variety of professions, expertise and background. It was noted, with some humor, that the likelihood of disagreement was high.
Ali Velshi, CNN chief business correspondent and anchor of “Your Money” and “World Business Today” on CNN International, was moderator to the panels. He introduced the dialogues saying, “The point is not to agree. The point is to share views with each other.”
The event was designed to continue the dialogue with all sides of the issues and, ultimately, to provide consumers with credible information.
“Today’s consumers have more information regarding food than ever before,” said Velshi, introducing the media-oriented discussion.
But more information is a double-edged sword. While food-conscious consumers have more access to information, they also have greater exposure to misinformation and “storytelling” fronting misleading agendas.
Kat Kinsman, managing editor of CNN.com’s awardwinning food blog “Eatocracy” and panel member, described the unfortunate vision the public has about agricultural producers, which has come up on her blog.
“What I’ve noticed that has been really, really interesting to me, is when you invite the general public in to come and look at and critique what [farmers and ranchers are] doing, there’s a tremendous amount of hostility from the general public who have this outdated notion—I’m still trying to figure out where it’s coming from—that somehow farmers are getting one over on them.”
She mentioned subsidies, animal treatment and environmental concerns being a big factor behind this mindset. Kinsman did say, however, she’s seen a lot of good coming from agricultural producers taking the conversation into their own hands and trying to combat this inaccurate perception.
“You have to get online and you have to put your own story out there. Say it in your words. It’s easy; it’s free to set up a blog. This is your direct channel to talking with your consumers and the message won’t get muddled.”
Various other panel members discussed the value of media as a tool for both producers and consumers alike.
Other panelists included Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau; a pair of crop farmers; two nutritionists from differing publications and backgrounds; and a food author.
The topic of antibiotics in the food supply was addressed in its own panel.
The panel featured a pair of large animal veterinarians, a pair of farmers (a hog farmer from Iowa and a dairy farmer from North Carolina), a pediatric nutritionist, and a representative from the Consumer’s Union.
Director of Food Policy Initiatives Jean Halloran of the Consumer’s Union, introduced the panel by repeating the commonly voiced consumer concern that too much antibiotic use in livestock is breeding “superbugs.”
“We have a crisis with the situation of antibiotics right now. Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness. These are miracle drugs but we now have illnesses that can’t be cured by them. And we think this needs to stop.”
She spoke of the use of antibiotics in livestock and tied supposedly high use to the supposed increase in antibiotic resistance seen in bacteria. This assumption, though popular in the media and consumer mindsets today, was challenged by a number of the other panelists.
Dr. Christine Hoang, DVM and assistant director of the Division of Scientific Activities of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), pointed out that AVMA has been working on its judicious use of antibiotics protocols since the 1990s. Through these protocols, AVMA has been working with livestock veterinarians and their clients to reduce overall antibiotic use and improved targeted, judicious use for all species.
The pediatric nutritionist, Dr. Keith Ayoob, also interjected that he is far more concerned about the misuse of antibiotics by humans than in livestock given the experiences of his practice.
“I wish my patients would use the antibiotics they are prescribed as judiciously as the veterinarians and farmers. I’m serious. You don’t want to underestimate that. I think there is a greater chance of antibiotic resistance produced by humans.”
The producers and other veterinarians weighed in as well on the responsible use of antibiotics in agriculture and the continuous searching for improvements.
The final topic of biotechnology and GMOs was saved to the end of the event. Panelists for this final dialogue included several academic and industry scientists, two crop farmers representing both traditional and organic production methods, a representative from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Food Security, and a member of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. This latter group is known for its support of vegetarian and vegan efforts like the “Meatless Monday” campaign.
The very issue of defining what a GMO is came up as problematic with some panelists using the transgenic definition of GMOs as unnatural while others pointed to the modification of all food organisms through history—either through conventional breeding or scientific augmentation—as the proper definition of GMOs.
Self-proclaimed “gene jocky” Dr. Bob Goldberg, a plant molecular biologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, spoke animatedly about what he sees as the misperceptions regarding GMOs.
“I think there’s a misperception. When people think about GMOs, I think about all crops, because there’s not one food that you buy in the grocery store that wasn’t engineered at one point in history. Over 10,000 years, all of our food has been engineered. Whether someone does conventional breeding to change the traits of a crop or whether someone inserts a DNA, a gene is a gene is a gene is a gene.”
He voiced his opinion that side-line concerns and suspicions about things other than the science of GMOs is what shape public opinion.
“When you separate the science from the anti-globalization issues, the anti-corporation issues, and all of these other kinds of issues and just look at the science, the science is perfectly safe and, actually, it’s very exciting.”
Other panelists brought up usual concerns regarding the safety of GMO products to consumers and to the environment. Cheryl Rogowski, a New York organic farmer, tied the issue of GMO crops to transparency, suggesting that because of her chosen production methods her consumers felt confident in her produce and could trust her. Though she did not directly make the claim, the suggestion was that other production methods lacked this transparency.
The conversation did at times get heated, but interaction was civil between the panelists and participation with audience members— both physically present and online—was very active.
“Food Dialogues: New York” was the third such major panel event of its kind. The entire event was open to the public via online live streaming and audience participation was encouraged, both from the in-person audience and the online audience via Twitter and other social media outlets.
The location of New York City was selected given the power and prominence of food in the culture of the city. Recent USFRA survey findings have shown knowledge of food is held up as a social value to more Big Apple residents than in the rest of the country. However, many New Yorkers feel they are less informed about how food is grown and raised than the rest of the country.
“New Yorkers especially have an interest in gaining more knowledge about how their food is grown and raised, so we’ve brought the Food Dialogues to the Big Apple,” said Bob Stallman, chairman of USFRA and president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“We feel that it is critical to hold this valuable discussion, bringing New Yorkers together with America’s farmers and ranchers to talk about tough issues and about improving how food is grown and raised.”
USFRA is a relatively new alliance consisting of a wide range of prominent farmer- and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners. Like many promotion-oriented groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Beef Checkoff Program, USFRA works specifically to promote all agriculture by addressing consumer concerns. The alliance strives to lead the dialogue and answer Americans’ questions about how farmers raise their crops and livestock, while being stewards of the environment, responsibly caring for our animals, and maintaining strong businesses and communities.
More information on US- FRA and the Food Dialogues project—including a rich library of videos, interviews and panels like the one in New York—can be found at FoodDialogues.com. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor