Time to set the record straight

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Food is an emotional issue for most people, and activists have realised that it provides a panoply of issues to fret about, including globalisation and other non-food matters. As more than one commentator has pointed out, ‘food activists’ are usually consumers already able to fulfil all their personal food needs. They also have the time and inclination to focus on food production methods.

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People who struggle to find enough to eat every day do not become food activists. In a recent article, Nigel Sulley points out that activists have other attributes in common. They are fanatically dedicated to their cause and unwilling to enter into debate with anyone who differs from their viewpoint. Instead, detractors are seen as secretly representing the interests of ‘big business’.

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Activist groups are skilled manipulators of public opinion. The same stories, generally with little or no scientific basis, are repeated until they are accepted as the truth. In addition, emotive names such as ‘Frankenfoods’ (for GM crops) are used to confuse consumers into rejecting certain products.

Economic sense
However, the fact that food activists go to extremes when pushing their viewpoints is no reason to ignore consumers’ legitimate concerns about food. The modern consumer demands healthy, safe food produced in humane and environmentally friendly ways. As it makes good economic sense to keep animals under as stress-free conditions as possible, progressive farmers adhere to these principles.

Crop production with minimum use of chemicals and less tillage also makes good economic sense, and many farmers already accept the principles of minimum tillage and biological farming. But sometimes it seems as if farmers just can’t win.

Maize farmers, for example, can use less of those pesticides and herbicides that food activists abhor if they plant GM seed. Which is, of course, one of the main targets of food activist ire. And so the ball lands in the farmer’s court again – because it’s up to farmers’ organisations to reassure consumers that using GM seed is more environmentally friendly than using non-GM seed and spraying for bollworm. They also have to convince the public that they are, in fact, responsible producers of food.

Self-policing to eliminate the very few bad apples in the sector is also needed, as farmers who mistreat their animals, for example, are the ones who make the headlines.

The retail sector
Food products are generic. The apples sold by one major chain are really no different from those sold by another. It is therefore difficult to distinguish between products. But retailers have found allies in the food activists and use emotional appeal, turning to labels such as ‘hormone-free’, ‘grain-fed’ or ‘grass-fed’ or ‘free-range’ to differentiate between products.

Fortunately, the new Consumer Protection Act has prevented the use of some of the wilder statements. All the same, negative advertising damages the entire market for a product. If Retailer A tells the consumer that its meat is produced without hormones, the implication is that other meat is full of hormones. An extreme example of this was the use of the misnomer ‘antibiotic-free’ for meat a few years ago.

The retail sector’s claims about food safety and health, as well as the requirements of the Consumer Protection Act have resulted in the development of a new industry – the certification agencies that check producers for compliance with food safety and other standards. These have added to farmers’ total cost.

Also, while farmers agree that the use of good agricultural practices has resulted in more efficient operations, some of the requirements they have to abide by do not make much sense.

The bottom line
Food activists won’t go away. Farmers will have to ensure that they produce food and fibre in such a way that food activists cannot find issues to campaign about. Farmers, farmer organisations and agribusinesses also have to educate the consumer about the production of food.

While contented, free-ranging cows and hens look highly attractive on the covers of magazines promoting natural and rural lifestyles, the fact is that the only way to feed our growing and more than 50% urbanised population is through the use of technology, including bio-technology, on large-scale commercial farms.

Dr Koos Coetzee is an agricultural economist at the MPO. All opinions expressed are his own and do not
reflect MPO policy.