This blog was originally posted on on November 27, 2014

By: Janet Riley

While working at a Michigan newspaper in the 1980s, I once told my editor that I had “a bad feeling” about an elected official and that we should “check him out.”  She informed me that my “feeling” had no basis in the facts upon which good reporters rely.

Many of the journalists participating in the New York Times Food for Tomorrow Conference earlier this month missed that lesson, it seems. While the conference purported to develop a vision for a better food system, discussion seemed more rooted in perception than real data and facts — like claims that we eat too much meat when federal dietary data shows it’s the only food consumed at the proper levels.

Other ‘feelings’ centered around size as a predictor of behavior:  small companies are good and big companies are bad.  When I asked another attendee who sympathized with their view, she said, “It’s not that they don’t like big ag.  They just don’t like big ag when they behave like big ag.”  Huh?

What conference organizers seemed to like about big companies, however, was their ability to write checks to augment the $1,400 per person registration fees.  Porsche and Chobani showcased products and  the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (ISFRA) brought the farmers that the conference nearly forgot.  Ironically, while wine and cappucinos flowed freely in the elegant Stone Barns Center adjacent to the Rockefeller estate, gratitude for industry’s checks was missing.

Food columnist Mark Bittman, opened the conference with a stinging indictment of ‘Big Ag’ and called for massive change in food production.  “It’s war,” he said, and outlined what clearly are his “feelings” (not facts) about the U.S.  food system:  “Much of what it produces, pollutes, sickens, exploits and robs.”

Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, who clearly missed the industry’s own Glass Walls efforts, called for “glass abbatoirs,” said he dreams of a second bar code on a product thatcould  link a consumer with instant detail and videos inside slaughter plants.

I asked Pollan during a session (go to 49:30), about the use of the terms “Big Ag” and “industrial farming.  When a small company succeeds and grows, “At what point do you cross that line in your mind and go from good to bad?” I said.  In a remark that left industry participants in disbelief, Pollan said that the USFRA  actually coined the term “Big Ag,” though the term predates USFRA existence.

Much like the recent Washington Post op ed that outlined a vision for a national food policy, conference speakers saw a need for more regulation.  Many of the farmers who came to give a voice to agriculture shook their heads in disbelief at times and could be heard muttering “that’s just not right!” from the seats as panelists declared what was possible – possibilities they’d learned from their urban perches.

As we returned to the local Marriott that housed conference attendees, I suppose a few of us wondered if we were too sensitive.  That thought was dashed when we read the Slate story that followed the conference where writer Andrew Lawler wrote:

“For a movement often accused of elitism, the setting seemed a bold choice. Once part of a sprawling Rockefeller estate, the center comprises a bucolic farm designed to train a young generation of organic farmers and a restaurant where acclaimed chef Dan Barber serves a $198 tasting menu. Participants paid $1,400 apiece to attend the day-and-a-half meeting sponsored in part by Porsche—one of the perks, along with the carrot cutlet and a pig-butchering demo, was the chance to schedule a test drive. “So what—we all meet in a Marriott?” said a testy Bittman when I asked him about the luxury of our surroundings.”

Plebian as it may seem, the Marriott was quite comfortable.  But at $279 a night, it was still out of reach for most Americans, just like the conference registration fee was out of reach for the people who grow food.  And so we are left with a large group of wealthy urbanites pondering agriculture’s future while agriculture is doing what it does best:  working hard.

I’m glad I went, but walked away astounded by the cavernous gap in thinking that remains.

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