The Forgotten Farmers

05/15/2015 12:43 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016


Photo Credit: © Dplett

It's heartening to see the growing public interest in what we eat and how it's produced. People are waking up to the fact that the Western diet is damaging our health and that industrial farming is effectively destroying our planet. And with climate change looming large on the horizon, a growing global population, and ever-diminishing natural resources, shaping up is in order!

But while I'm pleased to see more people making the connections between our food choices, our health, and our impact on the planet, I'm super concerned the food debate is becoming way too polarized. I wrote What The Fork to open up a more moderate dialogue about food and food choice. While I advocate for organic food, I see a rising obsession for certified USDA Organic that is alarming. In other words, anything that doesn't have the organic seal is rejected as "poisonous garbage," and the farmers who produced it labeled as "evil."

Take the recent "New MacDonald" video released by Only Organic -- a group that's made up of some of the country's biggest organic food corporations like Organic Valley (I'll come back to these guys later on). At first glance it seemed like a good thing: "In a playful way, our new video turns the spotlight on the true costs of conventional farming and the harm it does to environmental health," the promotional blurb says. Featuring schools kids singing a mash-up of the classic "Old MacDonald Had A Farm" song, it all starts innocently enough. But soon the words change -- "with a hormone here and a hormone there," "a small cage here and a tight cage there," "here a spray, there a spray, everywhere a spray spray" -- and the kids are doused with clouds of pesticides. The viewer is left with the impression that every non-organic farm is full of pesticide sprays and so on.

Playful?! Talk about how to alienate and infuriate almost the entire farming community in one hit! The video has raised the hackles of those I know in the farming community -- and that includes certified organic farmers. Watch the video and try to imagine you're a non-organic farmer. How would you feel if you, your livelihood, and your way of life were portrayed like this?

Farmers from across the spectrum were swift to damn the video. Twitter was abuzz with criticisms from individual farmers. For example, @NYFarmer wrote: "Few people in the food movement grasp what it means to the farmers to be so devalued and dehumanized by big biz in #NewMacDonald campaign." Pretty powerful words, right? The farming press was also awash with articles criticizing the video for being divisive and misleading, and highlighting widespread anger across almost the entire farming community.

Don't get me wrong: I passionately believe we need fundamental reform in our food systems and an end to industrial farming. But in the debate about where our food comes from and how it's produced, we've lost sight of the middle ground -- and also the folks who are living and working there. Sadly, I think Only Organic's "New MacDonald" video will end up doing more harm than good -- as I believe anyone who talks edible silver bullets risks doing!

I'm fast learning there are many thousands of farmers out there who are managing their farms as best they can, who are producing quality food, and raising their animals well and with the environment in mind. The chances are they probably inherited the farm from their parents and grandparents, so willingly destroying it or its capabilities would be like burning down the family home. The same with the animals: Most farmers want to treat their animals the best way they can. The vast majority of farmers take great pride in producing our food and managing the land. But they're not certified organic. Does this make them evil people who are hell bent on poisoning our kids, abusing animals, and destroying the planet, as Only Organic's New MacDonald video appears to suggest? Of course it doesn't. Similarly, there are countless Moms and Dads out there who are doing their best to feed their kids, but they're not providing them with an all-organic diet. Does this make them bad or abusive parents? Hell, no.

Central to my work is meeting people where they are at, and helping them to do better. And a key part of that is to understand that they must feel good about what they can do versus what they can't. Everyone has a different starting point. And you can apply that logic to farmers, too. In this whole "organic" vs. "conventional" conversation, the incredible work of many family farmers is being completely ignored -- or even belittled -- in the pursuit of some "Farming Nirvana." At the same time, millions of average families are being excluded from the food debate because they're made to feel "bad" from the very outset for not shopping at a farmers' market or buying organic. And then you wonder why the foodie movement is increasingly being criticized for being elitist and out of touch?

Although I am a firm supporter of organic food, buying "organic" isn't always the answer. And while there are countless thousands of organic farmers out there who are farming with the organic principles front and center, and offering their communities wholesome and nutritious foods, there are some serious problems hiding behind the organic label -- particularly if you're buying big brand organic food from a major retailers like Walmart, Target and Costco. The problem is there are major players in the organic sector who want to bend the rules and exploit loopholes as far as they can to maximize profit and market share. And there are some major loopholes to exploit.

Did you know, for example, you could take certified organic cattle, confine them on a feedlot and feed them an unhealthy (but certified organic) grain-based diet, and yet still label the meat as organic? Or that some of the largest "organic" dairies now contain 10,000-20,000 head of cows, and that these cows get very little in the way of real grazing on pasture (as required by law), and instead are mainly fed on cut "organic" grass carted to their gigantic barns? Or that when you buy "organic" eggs from one of the major retailers, you're almost certainly buying eggs from vast industrial-type barn operations where tens of thousands of "organic" birds are kept indoors in a single house and probably never even go outdoors? If you don't believe me, read this pretty depressing article in The Washington Post, which exposes the industrial farms that are masquerading as organic. These unscrupulous players are not only threatening the livelihoods of countless real organic farming businesses out there, but could ultimately undermine consumer trust in the organic label for good.

Like I said before, there are thousands of great organic farmers out there. Support them, because they need it. But ostracizing people just because they don't farm to the letter of the organic regulations or because their pantry isn't stock full of organic food is NOT the way forward. What we need to do is to shift the conversation from one that is super polarized and antagonistic to one where people can start to appreciate and understand the problems we ALL face. In doing so, we can make solving the growing food crisis a truly collaborative process, and one where people from all walks of life feel they have an important role to play. Because they really do. Small changes make big differences!

To stay connected with Stefanie, sign up for her blog -- bi-weekly ruminations, radio shows and recipes, and follow her on: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Her book, What the Fork Are You Eating? (Tarcher/Penguin Random House) is available wherever books are sold. You can also catch Stefanie's recent TEDx Talk here.