U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance held the latest in their series of Food Dialogues Friday in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum. Moderated by Carolyn O'Neill, food journalist and television personality, the panel addressed nutrition and discussed the various forces affecting American eating habits.
Joining O'Neill on the panel were Dr. Roger Clemens, USC School of Pharmacy, Los Angeles, Calif.; Dr. Janey Thornton, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services; Bob Haselwood, Kansas farmer; Dennis Derryck, Corbin Hill Farms, New York; Dr. Craig Rowles, veterinarian and Elite Pork Partnership manager, Iowa; and Barbara Ruhs, nutritionist, Arizona.
"Land, water and energy are all affecting food choices in the U.S.," said Clemens, kicking off the discussion. Thornton agreed, adding that Americans' fast-pace lifestyle determines what and how we eat, as well.
Processed food has increasingly come into play in that lifestyle, and with recent backlash. Ruhs pointed out that when she visited a large-scale tomato farm, she saw how quickly they moved to process tomatoes into cans.
"A tomato is picked and in a can within hours. That's optimal," she said. "A tomato on the shelf has been sitting out longer than one in the can."
Clemens agreed, adding that the "new fad" of home canning still creates a processed food and still has an enormous carbon footprint. "Think about your own footprint in canning a bushel of peaches at home. The peeling, then the sugar, paraffin, energy, refrigeration. And you can go buy a can of peaches at the store, for what?" he asked, insinuating that cost is very low relative to the home cost of canning.
In addition to confusion over what's processed and what's not, consumers are also puzzled regarding the safety of fresh produce.
"There's this feeling that there's organic…or there's everything else that's laden with pesticides," O'Neill pointed out. Clemens concurred, adding that a lot of people aren't aware organic crops can be treated with natural pesticides.
Thornton referred to a study that showed greater nutritional difference in crops grown on one side of a garden compared to the other side of the garden, due to soil differences, than there was between organic and non-organic produce. Ruhs, the nutritionist, fears consumers turn away from produce if it's not organic. "Don't split hairs. Just buy the produce," she said.
For consumers who know little about food production, Derryck thought it might be beneficial for them to understand what integrated pest management is and how it works.
Rowles, the Iowa pork producer and veterinarian, thought the same of antibiotics. "This is a really complex issue. Just to say, 'if we take antibiotics away from animal ag we will be safer' - I would vehemently argue that's not correct. If we have a healthier and safer animal, that's better for humans as well."
Antibiotics have been used as a tool in animal health for a long time, for one of four things: treatment, prevention, control and nutritional efficiency. Rowles noted the scrutiny regarding the nutritional efficiency label and believes that will be removed from most products soon, per USDA request. USDA has also asked for greater veterinary oversight in prescribing those compounds.
"I think this will give consumers confidence in knowing a veterinarian is involved in that process," Rowles added.
Questions regarding big and small farm sizes also play into the safety discussion. Rowles asked, "What's big? One more sow than me or one more acre than Bob (Haselwood)? It's not the size that matters, it's the commitment of the farmer.
"We all try hard to do it better today than we did yesterday. It's a continuing process."
Derryck summarized it well: "In terms of a message, it's not 'here's what I do,' but 'here are the values that matter to us.' Link them to consumers."
Catch up on more stories from USDA's Ag Outlook Forum:
Solid Gains in U.S. Agricultural Trade Expected This Year
USDA Projects 2014 Crop Prices Mostly Lower Than 2013
Slumping Feed Costs Improve U.S. Livestock Profit Prospects