Evolving perspectives of food muddying mindset (commentary)

Evolving perspectives of food muddying mindset (commentary)

THE highly acclaimed TV series "Justified" is premised on the exploits of the show's main character, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens.

The storyline has Givens in a Lexington, Ky., office where he continually crosses paths with local criminal Boyd Crowder in nearby Harlan County, which is home for both men.

The show's interesting twists and turns arise because the two characters grew up and "dug coal" together. Despite being on opposite sides of the law, there's an inherent connection between them.

Their understanding of one another invokes a powerful scene in the third season. Crowder philosophizes with Givens about his shifting worldview. It stems from the emerging presence of a Michigan-based drug cartel in eastern Kentucky. Their conversation unfolds as such:

Crowder: "What did folks used to say after the war? Carpetbaggers pouring into Appalachia like there were some Old Testament scourge lookin' to take what little bit we had left. They said that 'Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.'"

Givens: "Your point bein'?"

Crowder: "This is our home, Raylan. Now, I start to turn on my own people, however contentious at times our relationship might be — well that's a world that becomes so muddy that even I can't fathom it."

That seems like a fitting description for the food world too: It's becoming increasingly muddy due to rapidly evolving values and ideas surrounding all things food.

Sure, there have always been differences of opinion, but turning back the clock 100 years, it was probably much easier to classify various attitudes about food and/or food production practices within the industry. After all, those were simpler times, with the overriding concern predominately related to ensuring sufficient production.

Over time, though, we've introduced all sorts of new intricacies into the equation. No other long-standing industry has gone through more change than agriculture and the business of food production. Each subtle societal shift and/or introduction of new practices brings new complexities to the broader mindset toward food.

To cope with the ever-widening gamut of perspectives, we often oversimplify the perspectives. Our tendency is to assign people to one group, one opinion, one alliance or the other. In other words, for any given issue, you're either a local or a carpetbagger.

Unfortunately, that inclination to categorize often gets played out in the broader media and general public as one extreme versus the other.

In reality, nothing's ever simple. The food business remains highly fragmented; there are lots of players — all with varying opinions.

Arriving at a consensus, whatever the issue, is never easy. Moreover, none of the pertinent issues really stand alone; one always overlaps another, to some degree. Put all that together, shake it up and it's hard to know what'll come out in the end.

The most important aspect in all of this is the consumer. Consumers are asking more questions about more things. Trying to squeeze everything into some dichotomy of opinion misrepresents what's really going on out there.

Overcoming that challenge is best explained by the Center for Food Integrity, which said, "As consumer values change, the food system needs to evaluate and potentially modify current practices and fundamentally change the way it communicates in order to maintain consumer trust. Meaningful stakeholder engagement and effective values-based communication with consumers are essential to maintaining the trust that protects social license."

If only the issues and factions were simple to manage — but they're not; it's getting more complicated all the time.

The "locals versus carpetbaggers" mindset has long since passed. Rather, the food business is pretty muddy (sometimes, to the extent that it's hard to fathom).

Given the ever-increasing empowerment of consumers and their collective interest in food, it has never been more important to have leadership, innovation and new adaptive strategies to cut through it all.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:32

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