Ask almost any American farmer if consumers today understand where their food comes from and you will get a resounding,”No!” Ask any American farmer if the media today is biased against agriculture and you will get a resounding, “Yes!” Ask those same questions to farmers in France, and you will get the same answers. I know this because recently the president of one of the largest farmer organization in France sat in my office and shared with me the stories of consumer ignorance and media bias that is impacting the agriculture and food industry in his country. His stories were hauntingly familiar.
Laurent Klein is a grain and livestock farmer in Eastern France. He is also President of Agriculteurs de France one of the oldest and largest farm organizations in that country. He is visiting the US as part of an international leadership program. He specifically wanted to talk to a member of the US farm media about how we in the US were dealing with reaching consumers with information about agriculture. As we shared stories through a translator, we discovered farmers in France and in the US are dealing with many of the same issues, as well as trying some of the same solutions.
You would think, as I did, that a nation like France — with such a deep cultural connection to food and cooking — would have a better appreciation for and understanding of food production and processing. But, that is not necessarily the case. The green movement is very strong and very politically powerful in France, as it is throughout Europe. This movement is violently opposed to most modern farming methods including biotechnology. The leftist media are very suspicious of big business, especially big food processors and retailers. Klein told me his organization’s answer to this has been to totally change the focus of the group.
They changed from an organization designed to help farmers to a think tank to research and forecast the future trends in food production and consumption. This has allowed them to become a neutral third party to facilitate a discussion that involves a variety of differing viewpoints. He told me that food processors and retailers value their research because it helps them get a long range view of food production and consumption trends. He said they regularly give activist groups a platform to express their viewpoints, “If we provide a podium for their views, we can exercise a measure of control over where those views are expressed.” He said this is preferable to having them as loose cannons taking shots at agriculture from all over the place.
He told me they work very hard to cultivate a relationship with the media. They want to be seen as a credible source for information, which can allow them to debunk some of the myths and misleading information put out by green activist groups. He and I concluded that the level of consumer understanding of where food comes from is about the same as it is here in the US.
I shared with him some of the recent developments in the US, including how farm groups are joining forces for the purpose of educating consumers. I talked with him about the food dialogue that was held recently that used the social media to involve consumers in a discussion about food. I told him about the Center for Food Integrity which was doing research and was fostering a dialogue between different viewpoints, similar to the work being done by his organization. I also shared with him the new threat that US farmers are facing, that of increasing government regulations that make it harder to farm.
As we parted, we both felt the relief of knowing others were facing the same challenges each of us faced. We also shared a bit disappointment that neither had discovered some major solution that would solve the problem. But, I felt a sense of hope, knowing that farmers around the world were working on making people understand our industry better and that progress, however slow, was being made.