“O, be some other name! What’s in a name? 

That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” 

– Romeo and Juliet

On Sept. 22 the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) hosted four “Food Dialogues” in major agricultural production and policy areas to, in their own words, answer consumers’ questions and have an open discussion about American production agriculture and the future of food.

Perhaps anticipating criticism, an August blog entry on the Food Dialogues website states that, “the goal is not to advance an agenda or to persuade you to any particular point of view.  We simply want to create a forum that, we hope, will result in all of us being better informed about issues that affect our lives, our health, our planet and our future.”

With an affiliate list that reads like a who’s who of production agriculture, media materials such as the full page ads in major newspapers that read “Since When Did Agriculture Become a Dirty Word?”, and panel questions and responses that often felt staged, it is difficult to believe the USFRA when they say they want an “open discussion” about American agriculture.  Quite to the contrary, the Food Dialogues have all the markings of an aggressive marketing and rebranding campaign.

“What’s in a name?”: Defining “Dialogue”

The various dictionaries define “dialogue” in basically two ways: (1) dialogues in novels and plays in which two or more characters are having a conversation; and, (2) truly open conversations exploring (and trying to bridge) areas of difference between two parties.

If the purpose of the Food Dialogues had been to simply educate consumers about American agriculture from a specific point of view, the USFRA would have successfully had a dialogue under the first definition.  With the stage set and the characters in place, ready with their lines, the USFRA simply had to raise the curtain and in four acts present “The Food Dialogues” to its audience.

The trouble with this situation is that the Food Dialogues were more like dialogues in a play, dressed up in “open conversation dialogue” clothes.  In the area of food law, we call this kind of “trying to be something you’re not” thing “misbranding.”

Characters in a Play:  Education of American Consumers

The USFRA clearly has a right to put forward its own perspective and to educate Americans about why it thinks production agriculture, as it stands, is a positive thing.  And, it is a perfect time to do so.  Despite the attention that Michael Pollan, Food Inc., and others have brought to food and agriculture issues, two recently conducted studies show that consumers actually know very little about food and agriculture, but are thinking and caring about it a lot.

A study the USFRA conducted over the summer found that most consumers (72 percent) know nothing or very little about agriculture, but think about food production somewhat often and especially when purchasing groceries.  It also found that most farmers and ranchers think the general public’s perception of modern farming and ranching is only somewhat or not at all accurate.  Interestingly, the study found that 39 percent of consumers think the U.S. is heading in the right direction in the way we produce food while 42 percent think the U.S. is heading off on the wrong track – the nation stands divided.

The other study, commissioned by the David & Lucile Packard Foundation in July, focused on attitudes related to agriculture, the environment, and the federal budget.  Among the findings:

– 78 percent said making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and more accessible should be a top priority in the next farm bill;

– 69 percent said reducing the use of chemicals that contribute to water pollution should also be a top priority;

– 57 percent did not agree with cutting funding for farm conservation programs, saying they save money by preventing pollution;

– 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; and

– 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 time is ripe, so to speak, for all parts of the food and agriculture industry to educate consumers about these issues.  As dialogue in a play educates the audience, the Food Dialogues successfully conveyed the USFRA’s own perspective on agricultural production.

[Not] Truly Open Conversations

The Food Dialogues run into some problems trying to fit into the second definition of dialogue: truly open conversations exploring (and trying to bridge) areas of difference between two (or more) parties.

First, there were no other parties.  Despite the purported involvement of audience members and viewers online, the questions were largely pre-determined and there was no opportunity for follow-up of submitted questions.  Second, the panelists themselves largely seemed to come from the same viewpoint.  However, panelists from School Nutrition Association, American Humane Association Farm Animal Program, World Wildlife Fund, and Roots of Change offered different perspectives that provided some fleeting glimpses of a true discussion.

Unlike a true dialogue, the Food Dialogues did not address the fundamental questions and issues underlying our agricultural system.  Jason Clay, from World Wildlife Fund and on the D.C. panel, said “If you’ don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.  We have to figure out where it is we want to go.”  Instead of asking those tough questions and seeking out a variety of answers and perspectives, the Food Dialogues were one-sided and sometimes dismissive of issues Americans are seriously concerned about.  For example:

•Some on the Indiana panel focused on their self-declared status as a “typical family farm.”  But, what exactly is a family farm and does it matter?  (Apparently so, according to the study quoted above).  Are consumers more comfortable buying food if they think it comes from a “family farm”?  What if that family farm is a 32,000 head dairy operation, or a hog operation that raises 4,000 acres of crops and produces between 150,000 – 200,000 pigs a year?

•The issue of antibiotics and food safety was raised.  Instead of asking whether there were other ways to set up our agricultural system that might reduce the need for antibiotics, the panel emphasized the strict regulations requiring testing of milk to ensure there is no antibiotic residue (suggesting antibiotics are of no concern), their own judicious use of antibiotics (due to cost and consumer discomfort), and the safety of that meat and dairy despite antibiotic use.  The panel basically downplayed the issue, even though the debate over the impact of these antibiotics is not over.

•A video that played at the end of the Washington D.C. panel featured a cattle farmer who may very well be doing things right on his farm.  The farmer said that in terms of environmental practices in the cattle industry it only makes sense that farmers take care of the land because the next year the farmer has to bring the cattle back on the same land, and if the farmer hasn’t treated the land right, the grass won’t be there.  While his farm may have little or no runoff, the truth is that agriculture has significant, and often detrimental, impacts on the environment the costs of which are largely external to the farmers and the consumers (if you are a farmer or consumer in Louisiana, those costs are clearly not external to you).  The Food Dialogues would have been an opportune time to discuss ways that farmers could improve their practices to lessen their negative impact on environment.

•The issue of feeding the growing world population came up and the D.C. panelists were largely singing the “production agriculture” refrain.  Jason Clay was the only panelist to offer a cautious word about U.S. involvement in global food affairs.  Clay said that when we bring in cheap food from the U.S., we undermine local food markets and that we need to be more thoughtful about our actions and stimulate food production in those countries.

•Then there was WalMart and its statement that in its supply chain, there is room for everybody – from large conventional farms to small niche farms.  Is that something we as a nation want?  Do farmers want to be part of that chain?  Is it even true that there is room for everybody?  Tres Bailey, Director of Agriculture and Food at WalMart, said that sustainability also includes ethical and social issues and that the livelihood of farmers is one of those metrics.  Most people would agree with that statement.  However, who decides what an “appropriate price” for the farmers is?  WalMart wants their suppliers healthy, but by whose standards?

The Impact of the Food Dialogues

It is unclear how many people outside of the debate are paying attention to anything that the USFRA is doing and so it will be difficult to measure what impact these Food Dialogues actually have on Americans’ view of production agriculture.

Among those paying attention, however, the criticisms are strong and serious.  Nancy Huehnergarth, at NY State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, warns that the USFRA is a deep-pocketed industry coalition whose multi-million dollar budget means it is a force to be reckoned with.  “When Big Beverage came to town,” she recalls, “with their slick, emotionally manipulative, deep pocketed advocacy marketing campaign to derail the proposed penny per ounce soda tax, we wound up losing.”  She cautions that the USFRA campaign is just the same and that “food and agriculture reformers will need to vigorously counter the messages that come out of the USFRA campaign.”

Anna Lappé criticized the Food Dialogues as being “an orchestrated framing of the message about ‘modern agricultural production’ from the perspective of big business.”  More seriously, she quotes an industry report from September 2010 titled “Farm & PR Groups Wrestle with National ‘Ag Image’ Campaign” that discusses the use of media to successfully rebrand agriculture.  According to the report, the yet-to-be-formed-USFRA media campaign was to be a “‘preemptive strike’ against ‘a long list of new regulations and restrictions coming out of the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food & Drug Administration, ranging from tighter rules on pesticide applications to a potential ban of routine, preventative use of animal antibiotics.'”

A Call for a Real Dialogue

It remains to be seen whether and how this “marketing campaign in a dialogue’s clothes” has an impact on Americans’ opinions and attitudes about food and agriculture (and on legislation and regulation).  Shortly after the USFRA formed in November 2010, Professor Susan Schneider called for a true discussion about American agriculture:

Let’s have an honest discussion, i.e. a dialogue about the sustainability of our food system – environmental sustainability, social sustainability and economic sustainability (making sure that farmers earn enough to cover the costs of good production practices), not an ad campaign.  The farmers that I admire are the kind of people that step up to problems and are always looking for better ways to do things.  Not shoving problems under the rug and advertising complacency.

Given the number of pressing issues facing our food and agriculture system, we do not have the luxury of being distracted by rebranding campaigns pitched as open conversations (and, as my fellow LL.M.-er, Martha Dragich, commented, “True dialogue is impossible if honest inquiry is unwelcome.”).  What we need is to take a deeper, honest, more fundamental look at the things we value as a nation in our food and agricultural system, and figure out how to help our agricultural sector get there.  Farmers and ranchers of all types and sizes are innovative and responsive.  If we, as a nation, truly have an open dialogue about the future of agriculture and food production, we will be more able to meet the coming challenges.  And, given how huge they are, we better be ready.


Alli Condra is pursuing her LL.M. in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas. She was chosen as the 2011-12 recipient of the Marler Clark Graduate Assistantship.