This is the first in a series of posts about food from farm to fork, dirt to dinner, field to table, or however you think food gets into your kitchen. Look for an upcoming post on my experience on a modern pig farm in southern Minnesota.
I am not a farm girl. I live comfortably in the suburbs. I buy our groceries at the local grocery store or a farmer’s market. I do not know how to drive a tractor and I have never mucked out a barn, milked a cow, gathered eggs, or fed pigs.
Why is it then that I get upset when I read or hear criticism about our country’s farmers? I don’t have a strong connection to agriculture, but I do know where my food comes from. I also know the vast majority of food companies take their job of producing safe food very seriously; their reputation depends on it. And when I think about agriculture in the U.S., I have a positive feeling about farms and farmers. I believe most farmers–conventional or organic–are hard-working people who care about the land and the animals they raise. I struggled writing this post, because I think I am in the minority.
Local, organic farms are trending strong in Minneapolis and I think in many cities around the country. Terms like “family farms” are in favor and conventional or modern agriculture has been labeled as “factory farming.” Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the movie, “Food, Inc.” are getting a lot of airtime about the benefits of local foods and organic farming, but I don’t think they tell the whole story.
I support local farms in theory, and in practice when I can, because I definitely see the benefit of reducing food miles and sourcing food locally. I majored in ecology and environmental studies in college and I understand the impact of farm runoff in our waters and biodiversity. But, I also know the reality of our world’s food shortages. Small farms will not be able to meet global food needs. In my opinion, conventional farming still has an important role in producing food. And I do not think it is productive to polarize the discussion by labeling modern agriculture as “bad” and family farms as “good.” Pitting farmers against each other does not help move the conversation forward.
Our family of four is on a budget and I buy food we can afford. Most of the food we buy is a product of conventional agriculture. That means our produce was grown with the aid of fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified (GMO) seeds to increase yields. And our meat is typically from larger farms where animals are raised in large facilities with the aid of technology and interventions like antibiotics. I feel comfortable eating this food and serving this food to my family.
I’ll risk getting some hate mail, but this is what I think about food:
1. I think our food supply is safe.
2. I think most farmers use pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics judiciously.
3. I will eat food grown from GMO seeds. I am pro-biotechnology and I don’t have concerns about eating GMO corn or wheat. I think our regulatory system is fair and monitors producers and seed companies well. That said, I am concerned about pollen drift from GMOs creating random hybrids with wild type plants, and I see inequities in the economics of biotech crops that could and should be improved.
4. I do not believe in labeling a modern farm as a “factory farm” just because they use technology or have a large operation. In my opinion, advancements in agriculture are generally good for farmers and for increasing yields.
5. I was vegetarian for over a decade, but I eat meat now. I was a bad vegetarian and was not eating a balanced diet. By adding meat and more vegetables into my diet, I’m eating far fewer processed grains and I feel healthier. I buy conventionally raised meat and vegetables for our family and I feel good about it.
6. I believe the majority of animal producers treat their animals humanely and care about the animals on their farms.
7. I do think some aspects of farming can be improved and would love to see more efforts to control non-point-source pollution and agricultural run-off.
8. I have read extensive reports on our world food supply, and I do believe we need large-scale farming operations using the best technology available to feed our planet. I think local and organic foods have a place in our food system, just as traditional crops are important. I do not think small, local farms can exclusively meet our world’s food needs.
9. Our family joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for one season and it was not for us. We do not regularly cook with sunchokes, black radishes, kale, fennel, and sorrel. That said, I did appreciate the parsnips, basil, garlic scapes, and eggplant. I would join a CSA again in a heartbeat if we could get more of the items I am accustomed to preparing: cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, zucchini, squash, sweet potatoes, potatoes, peas, beans, corn, and carrots. We visit local farmers markets when we can and happily buy items in season that I can’t find at the grocery store, like big bunches of fresh mint and basil.
10. I worry about childhood obesity and I am trying to teach my daughters how to cook and how to have a good relationship with food. We eat our meals together at the kitchen table and most meals include fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and meat. I want to give my daughters a clear message to eat healthy food and I worry about muddying the waters by adding “but only if it’s local, sustainable, grass-fed, free-range, organic.” I want to first encourage them to know how food is grown and raised and then we’ll cover the finer points.
I want to be clear that I have a “to each their own” philosophy on most things and do not want readers to think I am disparaging local, organic foods or encouraging people not to support those products. I’m not. I just think conventional foods have a place in our food system too, and at the moment they fit in our tight grocery budget better.
Our country is in economic turmoil and it seems to be getting worse, not better. Many families are likely on a food budget and unable to afford local or organic foods that are generally more expensive. I decided to share my perspective on our food supply in case there is someone else out there that feels the way I do. I don’t feel bad about buying conventional foods for my family and I hope others don’t either. Mostly, I am grateful that we have plenty of food on our table and enough to share with others in need.
Amy is Amy On The Prairie, a working mom of two young daughters, wife to a really tall engineer, provider to two rescue cats, comfort foodie, food writer, and former world traveler. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.