“You can change the world with every bite.” is the closing line of Food, Inc. Rather than getting into the debate around this sensationalized “opiniontary” – I’ll just suffice it to say that it doesn’t fairly represent an incredibly complex agriculture system. However, the last line (set to “This Land is Your Land” music and lovely graphics that clearly show the money poured into the film) caught my attention.  I’m sure it resonated with many viewers who are wondering about WHO is behind their food.

I agree we can change the world with every bite. I also concur that people are disconnected from their food. However, the real reasons people are disconnected from their food isn’t because of any veil or intentional divide. It boils down to cultural differences. As a society’s wealth increases, they leave rural areas – clearly proven by the three generations removed from the farm in North America. AND, the independent mindset in the farm community, where modesty is ingrained and agriculturists worry more about stewardship of land and animals than “spin” has contributed to the disconnect. Neither are wrong – it’s just a different culture.

Rather than pointing fingers, I’ll just say that common sense should tell us a conversation is in order to overcome the cultural divide. You can change with world with a bite of your tongue and a bite of conversation. And remember, there are two kinds of forks – the ones you eat with and the ones you pitch manure with.

Let me start with the side that I’m most familiar with, as I was born and bred in agriculture. We can do a better job of listening and not being defensive. We can do a better job of talking about what we do, why we do it, and how we do it. For example, I’m writing this on Earth Day 2010. I’ve seen “farmers are the first environmentalists” and “every day is earth day on a farm” all day long on Facebook, Twitter and ag media. Who cares?

Before my farmer colleagues show up in mobs, let me explain. We sometimes make these types of statements without a lot of effort to really connect them to the non-farm community in a meaningful way. Perhaps a meaningful conversation around a few of these specific examples (with your personal story) could be  struck in celebration of  a sustainable Earth Day:

  • Technology has helped reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. GPS has allowed farmers to clearly identify the appropriate amount of inputs needed, the processing side of the business is using 45%  less energy and today’s farming practices reduce the number of times a tractor is run across the field.
  • Farm animals used to wander through creeks and watering holes. While the red barn and picket fence image is pretty in Charlotte’s Web, today’s animal agriculture housing keeps animals out of waterways, which means they’re cleaner.  Can the same be said of city sewage systems during a flood?
  • Know that most consumers don’t want to attack you. Have an open mind and don’t be defensive.
  • Explain how family drinks the water and eats the food from our land. As a mother, I do everything I can to ensure the safety of our food. I do use pesticides and insecticides because I’ve seen the stringent approval process required by the government and know the research behind them.
  • Likewise, we treat our animals when they are sick. It would be cruel to not help them be healthier.  And, the healthier they are, the more efficient converters of forages and grains. Speaking of which, dairy animals have reduced greenhouse gas emmissions 45%.
  • Shouldn’t sustainability go beyond our own food plate? Given expectations for the doubling world population in 40 years, we can’t simply return to 1970’s farm practices.  We won’t be able to feed people with those practices – and it certainly isn’t the best thing to do for the earth.

Turning to the “other” culture, I’d suggest it would be healthy for consumers to engage in conversation with a farmer and if you can, connect in person. If care so deeply and passionately about where your food comes from and how it was raised, wouldn’t it be best for you to learn about it firsthand? Here are a few ideas to help you get started.

  • Many organizations can help you connect you with farmers that have no agenda beyond raising food, feed, fuel and fiber. Leave a comment and I’ll help you find one in your state.
  • Check out Facebook pages such as Farmers, I Love Farmers…They Feed My Soul, Connecting Gate to Plate or Farm2U.
  • Know that farmers aren’t hiding information – they’re busy, hard-working families who have been taught to keep their head down and worry about what happens on their farm.
  • Learn from a video, such as a mom talking about the family hog operation.
  • Spend some time raising your own food – and you’ll quickly see the time, labor and skills needed.
  • Connect with FoodChat or AgChat on Twitter for a weekly conversation (8-10 p.m. Eastern) that’s engaged more than 2,000 people around the global food plate.

At the end of the day, the celebration of Earth Day only really matters if each of us takes meaningful long-lasting action. I believe we could change the earth one bite at a time if we’d consider the opportunity for conversation and learn from different sides of the food plate, whether we agree or not.