Time to move past dinner table dogma (commentary)

Time to move past dinner table dogma (commentary)

THE villain in Chipotle Mexican Grill's new online comedy satire series is a corporate agriculture company driven solely by profit with complete disregard for public interest or protecting the environment.

The popular burrito chain is attempting to capitalize on the decades-long shift in consumer attitudes about food and agriculture and the growing mistrust and skepticism of "Big Food."

That skepticism can be traced back to the late 1960s, when America lost trust in institutions. The Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy assassinations, troops and police attacking protesters at the Democratic National Convention and the war in Vietnam with related protests on campuses across the country fueled public disillusionment.

The frequency and visibility of violations of public trust by government, military, business and religious institutions (Iran/Contra, Watergate, Enron, BP oil spill, subprime mortgage collapse, Penn State, Catholic cover-up, etc.) has been consistent enough and visible enough over the past 50 years to breed broad skepticism about whether or not institutions are worthy of trust.

Over these five-plus decades, the food and agriculture industry has become more consolidated and integrated, and technology has replaced labor.

While those changes generally make food safer, more available and more affordable, they also support the growing cultural bias that the food system has become yet another institution and is, therefore, no longer worthy of public trust.

There is growing suspicion that "Big Food" is out of touch with the values of consumers and is likely to put profit ahead of public interest.

Unfortunately, today's debate about food is following the current path of polarized politics in which there is only "good food" or "bad food," with some suggesting that the only way to save the American diet is to roll back the clock and reject the conventional system that feeds most of us on a daily basis.

The hyper-partisan nature of the current debate overlooks the complex nature of the challenges we face in an effort to find a handy victim, villain and vindicator to create a compelling story.

While it may not have the appeal of a satirical series on Hulu, I'd like to offer a different perspective.

Joel Salatin of PolyFace Farms is one of the most visible examples of how a relatively small operator can become a diverse and profitable local food producer.

His 550-acre Virginia farm produces eggs, chickens, beef cattle, hogs, turkeys and rabbits with production methods that have been used since 1961, when his family began the farming operation. His mission is a noble one: to promote an environmentally sustainable and healthy approach to raising food.

Critics of more intensive farming methods hold up PolyFace Farms as an example of what sustainable agriculture should be. Supporters of conventional agriculture scoff at the notion that such an operation could be viewed as a viable model amid rapid global population growth and food shortages. Must they be mutually exclusive?

In addition to allowing us to produce more food with fewer natural resources, the responsible application of technology can offer significant benefits to society.

Researchers from Germany and Switzerland developed golden rice, a genetically modified crop created to address vitamin A deficiency that affects 400 million people and kills 2.7 million children globally each year. The scientists spearheaded an effort to have golden rice distributed for free to subsistence farmers around the world.

Supporters of biotechnology in food production say golden rice can save millions of lives in underdeveloped countries. Opponents say it's a thinly veiled public relations campaign to win global acceptance for biotech companies.

It's time to move past the oversimplified diatribes and address the very real challenges of food insecurity and malnutrition, obesity and its related health care costs, growing global demand for food amid limited and shrinking resources and the impact of climate change on agricultural productivity.

Consumers in the U.S. can celebrate the amazing variety of food choices we enjoy. From burgers on the grill to a vegan feast, from quick service to white table cloth, from conventional to heirloom, there is something for everyone. It's time to move past dinner table dogma and embrace and celebrate our culinary diversity.

If the Chipotle series encourages a more informed public discussion about the complex issues facing the food system, I'm all for it. If it simply creates more polarization and heartburn, I'll pass and binge watch some serious political intrigue on "House of Cards."

Those in the food system can use heightened consumer interest in food to actively participate in a more informed conversation about how food is produced. The Center for Food Integrity offers help in identifying when and how you can contribute through the Engage Resource Center at www.cfiengage.com.

*Charlie Arnot is chief executive officer of The Center for Food Integrity.

Volume:86 Issue:07

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