Letters to the Editor

Pressing the Reset Button on Our Conversations About Agriculture

The views expressed are those of the individual authors and not necessarily those of DTN, its management or employees.


To the Editor:

As a kid growing up on my family's farm, it never really occurred to me that some people didn't fully understand how food is produced or where food comes from. Farmers were -- and still are -- the backbone of my rural hometown and are intimately linked with local small businesses, civic organizations, churches and schools. Many of my classmates, family and members of my community have a relationship with farming and are closely connected to food production.

In thinking about what farmers and the agriculture community have achieved in the past 100 years, it's remarkable. We have helped to reduce global hunger and poverty, one of the greatest challenges of the 20th century. Modern agriculture continues to take tremendous leaps in productivity, while simultaneously reducing its environmental footprint.

And yet, agriculture often is perceived as part of the problem instead of part of the solution when it comes to climate change, animal well-being and healthier diets. Many Americans are two, three or more generations removed from the farm, which is relatively new in our country's history. This distance between production agriculture and consumers, coupled with widespread cynicism and mistrust in government, paradoxically, leads to calls for more regulation.

It's disheartening that food production has never been more of a politically charged issue, and it comes at a time when there are plenty of incentives and means to spread misinformation. Worn down by years of criticism, our agriculture community too often responds with prickly defensiveness -- some of it in good faith, much of it not. We have let our detractors define us, and to see the cost, look no further than continued skepticism toward agriculture or the uphill struggle of biotechnology in many markets.

It hurts because this is not the agriculture community I know through my professional and personal experiences. We are innovators, problem-solvers and lifelong learners, excited to share what happens when we try new things. We're deeply invested in the long-term health of the land we work and the communities where we live.

But when it comes to explaining that to our fellow citizens, we haven't been as effective as we should be, or even worse, we avoid the discussion. We do this because we think we're protecting ourselves and our industry, but we need a different approach. Staying on this path will limit the people who want to join our industry and paint us into corners with elected officials and the public. It will leave us on the outside looking in when it comes to the major questions of the century ahead, about how we will feed and fuel the world.

We have spoken for years about the need to "educate" consumers. But if we're being honest with ourselves, are we really acting as teachers? The best teachers, in my experience, welcome all viewpoints. They practice give-and-take in good faith. They take the time to learn where their students are coming from. They have open minds and never lose a sense of optimism that they will create something inspiring by bringing multiple perspectives together. If we want the rest of society to value what we do, then it is our calling to engage in a different way.

People have never been more curious or passionate about agriculture and food -- but are often removed from the realities of how it gets to our tables. While working in Europe, I was invited to speak to a class of business students, many of whom held strong opinions about how farmers operate. When asked the last time they talked to a farmer, most students had never even met a farmer, let alone had a substantive conversation with one.

We have the opportunity to start bridging that gap -- more engaged consumers ultimately are good for farmers. It gives us an opportunity to reset the conversation, rebuild the relationship and work together to solve challenges we collectively face.

I'm proud to be a bit of an outlier among my peers in that I still farm. It gives me an irreplaceable vantage point to see how things actually work in the field and in rural communities. I'm committing to walking that same walk when it comes to changing the way we talk about agriculture. I'm going to seek out unexpected partners and allies. I'm going to engage with our critics. I'm going to try to emulate the best business partners I've had. I hope you will join me.

Jeff Rowe

President, Syngenta Seeds


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