Defining labels serves no purpose (commentary)Defining labels serves no purpose (commentary)
January 9, 2015
LABELS can be helpful. In our food supply, for instance, it is important to have labels for nutrition information or warnings of any possible allergens in the food.
However, labels also can be used to pigeonhole and even hinder the understanding of certain topics because they tend to oversimplify complex subjects. Labels do not give a full understanding of any issue.
Agriculture is the perfect example of that. I often see farms labeled "small" and "natural" being lauded. It's inferred that these farms are superior, better for their local economies and better for the environment.
Activists demand that these farms receive more support and that "large" farms should be regulated into submission.
Yet, size is a relative thing. Size doesn't make a farm inherently good or bad; it is just what that farmer has to work with. Many farms and ranchers use the same methods or best industry practices, regardless of their size.
If a farmer or rancher is good at what he does and has some luck, he can expand the operation. Does the result of such hard work and a new larger size make that farmer less sustainable? Has that farmer suddenly stopped benefiting the local economy and started destroying the environment? How can we even quantify that?
Often, I have found that some of the "larger" farms and ranches are more innovative simply because they can afford to be. They have learned that new technologies offer more financial and environmental benefits.
These early adapters pave the way for smaller operations by removing some of the risk that is associated with change.
I agree that farms should get support, but not just the "small" ones. All farms should be encouraged to continually take advantage of the opportunities available to them.
It is in everyone's best interest to unceasingly improve operations by using better technology and science.
If activists continue to push for the existence of only small and natural farms, we run the risk of losing diversity in agriculture.
Likewise, to ensure a safe, affordable food supply, all types and sizes of agriculture need to play a part in the food chain.
There is no blanket way to farm or ranch that would be effective for everyone, and regulating operators to conform to one method would be detrimental to the food supply.
Every method and niche in agriculture has its own set of pros and cons. It should be up to the farmer — who knows the operation best — to decide how to use those methods in the most beneficial way.
By applying vague and ambiguous labels to farms, we make agriculture seem simpler than it possibly ever could be. Simplifying the intricate materials and nuances of what we do only hurts agriculture by confusing consumers and, often, itself.
We need to be aware of the labels we have been using to define ourselves.
It's time we go beyond small, big, good or bad and objectively share the methods behind the labels. This will foster better communication and, therefore, understanding among activists and farmers alike.
*Megan Brown is a blogger and sixth-generation rancher who raises Black Angus cattle in northern California. From 4-H as a child to FFA as a teen to receiving her bachelor's degree in agricultural business from California State University-Chico, agriculture has been Brown's lifelong passion. Read more on her website at www.thebeefjar.com, or contact her at [email protected].
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