The world grows by 159 people — and loses an acre of farmland — every minute. This is happening every 60 seconds of every day.
In the U.S. alone, an irreplaceable 41 million acres of rural land has been permanently lost in the last 25 years to highways, shopping malls, urban sprawl and other commercial developments, according to the American Farm Trust.
You don’t need an advanced degree in agriculture, food science, mathematics or any other field to understand that these opposing trends are leading to a bad end. The United Nations projects a likely global population of about 10 billion people by the end of this century.
I note these statistics not in the interest of fear mongering. Truth is, human beings have always innovated their way through crises, and we will do so again. But I do believe that everybody with an interest in farming — that is, more accurately, anyone with an interest in eating — needs to inject a level of common sense into the ongoing conversation about what constitutes sustainable agriculture.
The rise of the “Foodies” — dining dilettantes who demand customized-food production regardless of the costs to farmers or the price tag to lower- or middle-class populations — is a concerning sign of the disconnect between those who harvest food and those who eat it.
It is not a coincidence that this movement is fueled by well-moneyed interests on the West and East coasts — these are people who are (happily) far removed from the realities of food production. Nowhere was the disconnect more obvious than when The New York Times hosted an October 2014 “Food for Tomorrow” summit, which initially included a guest list of celebrity chefs, academics and journalists – but not a single working farmer. Only after howls of protests from agriculture associations and organizations did The Times grudgingly add actual food producers to their lineup.
In a sane world where serious policy discussions need to take place about farming sustainability, environmental accountability and animal welfare protections, The Times fiasco provides a measure of either: A.) How out of touch the average American has become with the food chain, B.) How critical it is for farmers to tell their own stories, C.) How traditional media outlets have forfeited their responsibility toward objective information gathering or D.) All of the above.
The answer, of course, is D.
The stakes are tremendously high. There’s truth to the old axiom, “Out of sight is out of mind,” and most people are simply disinterested in the challenges faced by modern farmers. The real problem stems from a very small and vocal group of angry anti-farming special interest organizations — such as Mercy for Animals, PETA, Humane Society of the United States, Sierra Club and others — that (openly or secretly) hope for the cessation of U.S. agriculture. They have become very effective at dominating the community conversation by vigorously shouting down any viewpoint that doesn’t echo their own.
All is not lost, however. Farmers are becoming more media savvy, developing their own platforms for storytelling. One example is the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers’ Spudmobile. It’s a fun, family-friendly tool that teaches school children how potatoes are grown, teach parents about nutrition and spread the word about good agricultural practices across the Midwest.
Another case in point was the dairy industry’s #MilkTruth Day of Action on Jan. 27.
A well-coordinated social media blitz united hundreds of dairy producers, processors and affiliated industries in a campaign to “stand up for the truth,” according to Julia Kadison, CEO of Milk Processor Education Program.
For industry critics, the truth is they are fighting a losing battle. They lack know-how. They lack science. And they lack the demographics to sustain their argument: Yes, it’s easy to complain on a full stomach; but as the world population continues to surge, the planet will become a hungrier place. When that happens, watch what happens to the national “conversation” on farming. The Foodies may talk less and listen more.
Bill Eberle is operations manager for Rosendale Dairy in Pickett, Wis. An abridged version of this column originally appeared in The Reporter of Fond du Lac, Wis.