A Can of Worms

Reachout “A Can of Worms” January 30, 2017 from Central Valley Ag on Vimeo.

by Mike Zwingman

by Mike Zwingman

A few weeks back, I glossed over something difficult in an article.  It was a can of worms too big to open in that space.

I made the case that our consumers have different preferences for food grown organically, or conventionally, or locally, or non-GMO-ly, or what have you. And that those preferences make for a market that’s not only big enough for everyone but one that’s full of opportunity. The word “preference” as the can of worms I didn’t open.

Because for some consumers, “preference” is exactly what they honor when they make a choice in the grocery store. For other consumers, though, their decisions are motivated not by mere preference but by fear. They choose food labeled “non-GMO” because they are scared of GMOs. They buy organic because they are afraid of chemicals.

What these consumers fear isn’t bogeymen, though. They fear that their food is unsafe – that the food they spoon into their kid’s mouths will make them sick or give them cancer. They fear that the food they spoon into their kid’s mouths has already hurt the earth, changed it, poisoned it, sucked it dry. This fear isn’t fear of bogeymen. Their fear is very real, and they are very scared.

We shouldn’t act like its only consumers feeling fear, though. Growers feel it too. When a consumer deems your food unfit to eat, rare is the grower who lets it roll off their back like water from a duck. Instead, it feels like an attack.

And while my examples here illuminate one side of this situation—the organic/non-GMO consumer vs. the conventional grower—it works the other way too. Consider the consumer who won’t touch any liberal conspiracy organic apple and the grower who produced it and tell me that that’s not a dyad rife with fear too.

This is a problem. Everyone is scared. No one should be scared.

We’re scared because humans are instinctually afraid of things that are bigger than we are. It’s the same reason that we’re scared of bears and thunderstorms. And how much bigger than us is “Big Ag” or “The Market”? Our (perceived) smallness in comparison is overwhelming.

But more important than this matter of evolution is a simple fact: we are raising, whatever the system we use in our operations, the safest food source in the history of mankind. If everyone knew that, we could make all this unnecessary fear vanish into thin air, much as you stop being scared of thunder the minute you realize it can’t hurt you. Consumers could go on with their preferences, and we could go along meeting them. Kumbaya, kumbaya.

But, standing very squarely in our way: misinformation and a lack of communication. Every day, the average consumer gets further and further from the farm and every day that space between them and us gets filled in with all sort of crazy, kooky “facts” that make people lose their darn minds.

The good thing about this that should make us all very happy is that it’s very easy to fill that space with accurate information: we just need to talk to each other. We need to ask and answer questions with honesty, a bit of tact, and some humility, and truly—presto! Problem solved, and we can all go about our lives feeling a bit lighter than we did before.

It saddens me a touch that we all suffer the great weight of a problem with such an easy remedy. It’s not like we’re doing some wicked stoichiometry here—we just need to chill out, to extend a hand, to offer an ear. Simple things that we’re all imminently capable of. So many of the problems we encounter in a day require biochemistry to solve—but this one? I’ve said this before, and I will say it again, I’m sure: connection and understanding. The next time your niece visits from Omaha, or your kid’s ball team puts you in the bleachers in York—whoever, wherever—strike up a conversation. Teach a little, learn a little. Make the world a seriously better place for all of us one friendly chat at a time.