CNN Eatocracy: Can we find civil food conversations online?

I don’t know about you, but I get pretty frustrated hen trying to have a conversation, but can’t wade through all of the mud that is being slung in the process. This happens a lot when trying to talk food and farming online. These are emotional topics and each side of the table tries to throw it’s own scientific backing in the mix.

I ran into this situation a few weeks ago and used it as an opportunity to share a few points I feel are important when approaching food and farming conversations, especially online.

These thoughts went live on CNN Eatocracy late last week in my latest post, aiming to facilitate further discussion on food topics by offering a farming perspective. These points are something both side of the table need to take into consideration and inspired quite the conversation on the original post.

Farmers aren’t evil. Now can we have a civil conversation?

A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook message out of the blue asking to stop my support of animal abuse. The person behind the message said I may not realize it, but she believes what I do for a living is inherently cruel.

She described things she feels are wrong with animal agriculture – how baby calves are used for veal production, how cows are sucked dry of their milk until they can no longer function, and how pigs and chickens are crammed into crates to the point where they cannot move. She believes that livestock farming needs to end in favor of plant-based diets to feed the world’s population.

When I asked where she had witnessed these cruelties or learned of this information, I received a number of links to articles and videos from groups likePETAMercy for AnimalsFarm Sanctuary, and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS); groups that have a focused agenda to stop animal agriculture with little to no consideration for the farmer.

This is not the animal agriculture I work in. The stories she had were moving and certainly lead people to take action, but they do not represent the agriculture community.

There is nothing more frustrating than being approached by someone who believes I am an evil person for what I do, without ever having a chance to voice an opinion about my experience. This happens time and again in conversations about food and agriculture topics and we are just digging ourselves a deeper hole, but we can find a better avenue to communication.

The discussion continued, and I asked, again, where she had witnessed these cruel circumstances. She pasted several statements filled with statistics and graphic descriptions of the animal housing conditions and treatment standards. A quick Google search found these statements easily copied from the above mentioned group websites.

I shared links to a few blog posts and videos I have created in the past to describe animal care on my family’s farm, guidelines farmers follow for better animal care, and a series of posts to detail work in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), or what some call “factory farms”. I view these as a snapshot of how I perceive modern cattle farming.

No matter the effort or the questions I asked, I continued to receive prepared statements and figures from these organizations. I felt like it was one large brick wall.

Then I had to step back and ask myself, is this how messages are received from farmers and ranchers as we try to use science when discussing modern food and farming? The clash of emotion and science and neither is making headway.

As a whole, our communities of farmers and customers need to approach these conversations and be more respectful of others’ opinions. Food will always be a difficult subject to discuss. Everyone has different expectations for their food; how it tastes, how it should be grown, and how much it should cost. We definitely have skewed perceptions of how our wants and needs should be accepted by the other side of the table, even though we share a common ground – eating food.

When we approach these conversations, I want to encourage us all to take a few steps for better communication and dialogues.

First, we have two ears and one mouth. We all need to listen first before we speak. Everyone possesses their own opinions and when we can hear the other viewpoints, we can better respond to the issues at hand.

Second, leave your first impressions at the door. Assumptions need to be laid aside. Ask questions. What is the other person really asking? The better you understand and are willing to listen to what the other side of issue has to say, the better you will understand your own beliefs.

Finally, understand the world is not out to burn you. Haters will abound, latch on to the most emotional, exciting aspect and blow it out of proportion. These folks will often stand on the most prominent soapbox, seeking the most attention. This by no means qualifies them as right or their stance any more substantial. Many more people mean well and stay much less vocal.

Conversations require cooperation from both sides to be productive. I am no communications professional, but I do know that both sides need to evaluate their approach and listen more.

So here is my challenge, what questions do you have about modern farming? And are you willing to consider asking them in a way that makes it easier to engage a conversation rather than an accusation?

Instead of “Why do you poison our food supply with chemicals and GMOs?” maybe someone not on the farm could ask a farmer, “How does your use of chemicals and technology affect the safety of food and our environment?” I know it takes a mind shift and I am trying to make one on my end too, but if both sides shift toward openness rather than assumption.

So think about it: if you could ask a farmer of any crop, almonds to zucchinis, where would you start? I’ll do my best to find farmers to help with the answers in a similar spirit.

Leave your questions in the comment section below or submit your question via the Ask A Farmer page above or send me a message on Facebookand Twitter.


  1. Ryan, these are the exact same things I have been trying to bring to the table for two years. The unfortunate part is that the 1/100th of the 2% of farms that have been showcased by PETA, HSUS and alike have made EVERYONE in agriculture look bad. These few select, sensational stories have created a distrust within food production.
    You are very correct in discussing the different mind sets. It truly is sad how so many people think that the face of agriculture is what is witnessed via channels like you listed. Unfortunately, I don’t see the general “populace” altering it’s mindset and I don’t know if many farms can afford to alter what they do to meet the customer demand. I hate to say this but many farmers are also atop a soapbox because they “know” they are doing the right thing. Agriculture is ever evolving. New methods, new products and new practices are utilized constantly but, there are some (and I know plenty personally) that just refuse to have a conversation about changing their operation to “suit” what the consumer would like to see.
    On a side note, we raise calves for veal (not traditional). We LISTENED to what the consumer wanted. They wanted calves to have the ability to move around, to eat grasses and be able to have a normal life. We developed a whole business plan around both experience and consumer demand. We have sales, people coming to visit the farm and NOW holding open conversations because we took the extra step to provide something they wanted. Currently we have a higher demand for our beef, poultry and eggs just from transitioning one aspect of our farm that has increased our viability as a farm.
    Thanks for taking the time to point out again that these are all topics that MUST be held between consumer and producer!

Leave a Reply