I remember reading an interesting quote that, paraphrased, said society was losing touch with where food came from and that the increase in urbanization was a death knell for rural life. The quote was from the 1920s. Shocking? A little, but it’s also an excellent bit of perspective for where we sit now, nearly 100 years later, when food and where it comes from is not only a hot topic, but also the number of people actually producing food here in North America is at an all-time low.
Of course, an equation like that is just a communication mine field waiting to happen. And, perhaps to no one’s surprise, that’s really where we’re at. Myths, misperceptions and poison fruit abound surrounding “modern agriculture.” Magic pills, 7-day cleanses and heirloom everything shore up the “other side.”
But these are the two ends of the spectrum. What about the average? What about the middle?
Don’t want to read? Listen to a version of Lyndsey’s column below (excuse the “conference voice.” It’s been a busy winter already.)
That “moveable middle” was the topic of conversation at the recent Grow Canada conference held in Ottawa, December 3 and 4, 2014. Instead of shying away from the tough questions consumers have about how their food and food ingredients are produced, two speakers shared examples of how their organizations are being open, honest and transparent. The results are nothing short of astounding.
Sherry MacLauchlan, director of government affairs and sustainability for McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada, shared the company’s bold “Ask Us” campaign — where McDonald’s Canada offered consumers a chance to not just ask the company any question, but then also answered each and every one with total transparency. It wasn’t always comfortable, said MacLauchlan, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and the company is enjoying a boost in popularity. No longer a guilty pleasure for many, families are returning to the Golden Arches informed and comfortable with their decision.
If McDonald’s can overcome the stigma of Super Size Me, can agriculture move beyond frankenfoods and the Evil Dr. Monsanto? Kate Hall, managing director for the Council for Biotechnology Information, U.S., has the formidable task of trying. And, thanks to a collaborative effort know as GMOAnswers.com, that takes the same open-dialogue, ask-us-anything format, Hall says the group is pleased with the measurable changes they’ve seen in those they interact with online and in person.
For me, it was refreshing to hear from companies that had taken their share of hard knocks, and instead of stonewalling, decided to face an issue head on. It was amazing to see some of the shift in language used in tweets and other communication used by those who had interacted with GMOAnswers. One woman said that yes, she grew an organic garden for herself, but that she also daily picked insects off the plants by hand. She recognized that that’s not practical at a field level. And that, my friends, is exactly what the “moveable middle” is all about.
What Hall and MacLauchlan noted that what made these campaigns successful was the willingness to take on ANY question and provide a thoughtful, transparent answer — even when some of that answer may be less than marketing-message-polished. Honest dialogue, not ideals, fear tactics or name calling, creates opportunities for real discussion and acceptance of another way of doing things. This isn’t about outlawing one production system, or tearing down one side or the other, it’s about recognizing that our food system is complex, and burdened with producing an incredible amount of food for very discerning customers. It’s not easy, but I for one, am glad to see that there are those who ARE the moveable middle, and those that are speaking to them, too.
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