Many dairy farmers wear the name “Jack-of-All-Trades” with pride knowing that the extra skills they have mastered from welding, to machinery repair, to construction are positive contributors to the day to day work of dairy farming. However, three new job skills are finding their way onto the farmer resume: teacher, lawyer and media expert. Although they have nothing to do with crops, cows or milk they are becoming necessary to keeping farming sustainable in the long term. It’s ironic that some of the biggest challenges facing the modern day food provider revolve around politics, legal challenges and negative publicity. How they are handled, particularly, in developed countries could have a huge impact on choices on both sides of the agricultural fence.
It is hard to imagine that any passionate cow breeder would have foreseen the day that they would reach out to regulators, lawyers and reporters in an attempt to find common ground. Of course, there are still many who don’t see any of these as a logical part of their farm team …. and are facing the fallout as a result.
In an earlier Bullvine articles, “GMOs Beyond Right and Wrong” and we urged farmers to speak up in order to clear up misconceptions regarding dairy farming from motivation to production. Many excellent spokespeople continue to do exactly that but, for those who are keeping score, there have been both hits and misses on the target of using communication to avoid litigation and regulation. At the same time that any one area leads us forward (for example genomic selection), there are fifteen “anti” positions that demand answers and throw up roadblocks. The same is true, if we expand our viewpoint to include environmental issues. And that doesn’t begin to cover what happens when you stir media and emotion into the mix.
Of course, it is part human nature and part media hype that means that the most negative stories are the first to come to mind. Five years ago DeRuyter Brothers Dairy in Outlook Washington became the defendant in a suit brought by the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment. Although the suit was eventually dropped it was two years of legal hell for the DeRuyters. Sadly, at the end of the day, the activists weren’t really as concerned about air quality as they were at making headlines. The issues that were addressed barely blipped on their radar.
Also in Washington State, twelve dairies in Yakima County worked with air-quality scientists and regulators to reduce air emissions (for more information see reports of the Western Dairy Air Quality Symposium). Their efforts and responsible approach to the issues didn’t inspire the dramatic headlines that accusations of guilt earn on the front pages.
It is unfortunate that the assumption of farmer guilt is the starting point. With this negative mind set it actually works against agriculture to present scientifically backed arguments. Remember when Mother used to be suspicious of overly long protestations of innocence? Today any positions proclaiming a scientific defence are seen as “extravagant claims” that can’t possibly be lived up to. And, of course, if it’s a benefit to the farmer, it must obviously follow that there will be environmental and health issues for the non-farming public.
Somewhere in the evolution from a time when everyone was connected to a farm or farmer, we consumers appear to have lost trust in our food providers. Is it possible to return to that “rosier” time? Not likely. However if full trust is unattainable we can still use common sense. I have to ask why it is assumed that dairy farmers – who also must eat to survive — would invest a million dollars (at the least) to provide food that does harm to themselves and their children? The profit motive doesn`t stretch that far. So where does that leave us?
There is no quick and easy answer. Education is slow. Regulation is slow. Conflict, on the other hand is fast and furious. What we need are credible current studies. We also need to pay for them! Another rub as how this solution hits producers’ wallets. Proven facts need to be placed alongside the emotional fallacies. And this adds even more time investment problems in an industry that already faces the time constraints of raising animals from birth to production and also deals with the seasonal calendar of crop production. Which brings us to even more slowdowns as the anti movement puts the brakes on crop production development. There are many examples. France and Austria are anti-biotech with the result that some GM crops have waited 10 years and there is still no progress. The current regulatory delay sits at 5.5 years – a substantial increase from 3.7 years in 2002. (“Worried Sick about GMOs”)
These are very real concerns. Then you add in the financial implications. CropLife International is a global federation representing the plant science industry (Read more www.croplife.org). A CropLife report suggests that it costs nearly $140 million to discover and commercialize a new crop. To these two issues we can add the continuous growth of the bureaucracy that builds around them, including regulation, education and litigation. This is growing heavier all the time. In ironic contrast, the growth in crop yields in major food crops is stagnating. This is completely upside down to what is needed. The crop growth statistics are the ones we need to see growing if we intend to provide food for future populations.
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist on less productive methods – such as organic– and then turn around and say that land must not be turned from nature to agriculture. Agricultural innovation is being strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations which are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk. But logic doesn`t always win the day. You can literally play “true or false” until the cows come home but what is really needed is continuous support of myth-busting (particularly in the media) and comprehensive rules and regulations that support the proven science. Now this should be welcomed by those sides. However, there currently are not such comprehensive systems in place and past history leads us to fear that when rules are enforced and regulations met, the fallback position frustratingly becomes that “either the rules or the enforcers are insufficient, ineffective or in some way defective”.
The Bullvine Bottom Line
At some point, we have to admit that we cannot allow the conflict to become more important than the issues that need to be solved. What we really need are more cool heads and fewer hot buttons. Now that`s something I would like to see on resumés from both sides of the debate!