How to handle conversations on controversial food issues

Food Farm Agriculture Tips for Controversial Issues Conversations
It would be perfect if we could always discuss food and farms around the feed bunk, but we have to be prepared for conversations to pop up anywhere.

Whether it is a t shirt from an ag conference or a hat supporting a friend’s ranch, wearing Agriculture-related clothing never ceases to strike up a good conversation. This week was no exception.

There is a brewery in town that I love to frequent. They have good pizza, great burgers, and at least a dozen televisions from any vantage point with at least 4 different sports channels on. I was enjoying my burger yesterday when the couple next to me asks about my Livestock Judging hat.

We talked about the judging team in Kansas where I got the hat and being involved in FFA. Conversation goes to my work with cattle and they compliment that with, “we need more people like that.” I say, “Yes ma’am. Someone has to grow our food.” She says, “especially with all the chemicals and stuff they feed them that changes the genetic makeup of our bodies.

How do you respond to a statement like that?

… I carried on the conversation about our local food options and they had some great suggestions on local meats I will have to try.

The couple from the brewery are locals and there’s a good chance that I will see them again, so hopefully there will be opportunity to dive deeper into the conversation about the “chemicals and stuff” that goes into our food chain.

Tips for approaching controversial topics

When engaging in conversations about food, farming, and agriculture, more often than not we end up involving emotion and ‘facts’ from an array of backgrounds. So how do you handle these controversial subjects?

The setting, time frame, and casualness of the conversation may limit the depth of the conversation. Below are helpful points to come prepared with when you approach the table for discussion.

  •  When possible, set the stage to avoid fear of retaliation from opposing viewpoints
    1. Listen respectfully, without interrupting
    2. Respect one another’s views
    3. Criticize ideas, not individuals
    4. Commit to learning, not debating
    5. Avoid blame and speculation
    6. Avoid inflammatory language
  • Consider your own biases or confusion surrounding the issue
  • Recognize the diversity of the group. This is an asset and can lead to authentic conversation
  • Set a framework and objectives for the discussion that lead to engagement and consideration of opposing viewpoints
  • When possible provide a foundation and context for better understanding
  • As a moderator, foster civility and prepare to deal with tense or emotional moments
  • At the end of the conversation summarize and reflect, then always leave the door open for follow-up conversations.

The other members of the conversation may not have these tools in their belt, but sometimes it only takes one level-headed person to make a difference in the discussion. Learn more about preparing for difficult conversations and find more resources, in this link.

Opportunity for food conversation exists all around. You just have to pay attention. Sometimes it’s not about converting, educating, or even debating. Once in a while it’s just important to leave a good impression.

As my friend Janice says, there are times it’s best to choose the middle ground. But if you still have an itching to engage in an argument, my friends at Just Farmers have shared some tips you need to read first.


  1. Great post Ryan! I grew up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, which my family still operates, and I now live in a Twin Cities suburb. I run into these types of conversations all the time and always struggle with communicating well the farmer/rancher perspective on these issues. These are great tips and resources. Thanks!

    1. Thanks! I hope these tips will help. I’ve learned quite a bit about handling food conversations while living in college towns. It can be pretty difficult. These tips have helped me get off on a better foot with several folks.

  2. Ryan,

    I am a vegetarian, primarily vegan, and I endeavor to be organic as much as possible (read: what I can afford). However, this is my personal decision and I don’t inflict it upon anybody else.

    While I do believe organic is better, and while I find the abuses of factory farming abominable, there also are many positive aspects of 21st Century agriculture. Unfortunately, they all too often get drowned out. Keep up the good work you’re doing!

  3. Ryan,

    Bravo! This is an awesome article for everyone to read who has a strong opinion about something. Choosing to listen first is always positive because you enable another to express themselves and don’t assume you have the answer. In my mediation practice, which focuses on conflicts between people about animals, getting people to really listen to the others viewpoint is key to a better understanding among the people and a likelihood of reciprocal listening from the other side.

    Your six steps to be aware of are fundamental. Yet emotion and commitment to a cause or belief sometimes get ahead of good sense. If people start with your # 1…2-6 will come more easily.

    Please keep up the good work. I look forward to reading more about how you help people have controversial conversations.
    Debra Hamilton
    Hamilton Law and Mediation
    Trailblazing a new way to resolve conflict between people about animals.

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