Food Fights and Beating Up Straw Men


“I have spent the better part of this decade undertaking research where I have discussed these issues with hundreds of research participants…I have yet to meet one of these straw-men or straw-women”

Local versus global. Technology versus tradition. Urban versus rural.

How many times have you seen these kinds of oversimplified divisions in debates over the future of food and farming? I would argue, ‘too many.’

In widely circulated editorial on October 3, Cam Dahl claimed that “misguided cityfolk” promoting local, organic and natural food are wanting,

“food produced like it was 1930” forcing farmers into living conditions with, “no running water, wood heat, a standard of living below poverty, one-room school education, even longer work hours, etc.”

In all of my days, I have never heard anyone suggest this. Have you?

Cam’s editorial uses a straw-man argument where one “side” is constructed, misrepresented, and then vilified.

I see two straw-men who unfortunately are loudly distorting the debate on food and farming: The Dumb Industrial Farmer and the Ill-informed Unreasonable Consumer.

I have spent the better part of this decade undertaking research where I have discussed these issues with hundreds of research participants. With small and large farmers; with cooks, butchers and chefs; with men and women, young and old, urban and rural.

I have yet to meet one of these straw-men or straw-women. I have learned that most of us are thoughtful, analytic and open to discussion. And that we all care deeply about food, health and community.

I don’t mean to pick on Cam. Yet, his editorial had me imagining standing across the boxing from him. However, despite our obvious differences, we likely have many common values.

Such mudslinging is hardly productive as it creates sharp divisions and forces us into opposing camps. Then we dig into our trenches, blinded by righteousness.

At that point, the opportunity to work across our differences is lost. There certainly has to be a better way.

I want to dissect another straw-man advanced in Cam’s article: the foolish nostalgic “foodie” who rejects modern technology seeking to return to a past that never existed.

Are traditional and modern technologies mutually exclusive? I think not. Let’s look to Europe.

Across the Atlantic, a vibrant small-scale farming and processing industry co-exists with larger export-oriented agriculture. These innovative businesses are supported by generous government programs and enabled through appropriate food safety regulations.

Simon, a baker who recently moved to Manitoba from the Netherlands shared his frustrations about doing business in Canada. Food safety regulations prevent him from using his traditional European baking methods. Canadian regulations are forcing him to over-sterilize, to over-process and to add preservatives, making these recipes impossible. But why?

Consider the notion of “retro-innovation” used in Europe where modern and traditional technologies and practices are combined to develop natural, organic and traditional products for both local and world markets.

Retro-innovation occurs here too, yet it is being marginalized instead of nurtured. In Europe, consumers aren’t keeling over en masse from eating these foods. Yet, here in Manitoba, many of these same products are being deemed as “unfit for human consumption” and unduly vilified as dangerous.

Advocates of organic, local and natural food should indeed recognize the important role of modern appropriate technology in food and agriculture.

However, proponents of new technology need to be far more receptive to the role of traditional technologies in agricultural innovation.

The past is not as idyllic as often portrayed. Modern technology is not as universally beneficial as frequently argued. But in both cases, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

We should use and combine both modern and traditional technologies as means towards an end: healthy, sustainable and economically viable farming and food systems.

If we cut through the rhetoric, we’re talking about families feeding families. We’re all in this together and when it comes to the future of farm livelihoods, of the environment and of the health and safety of our families, the stakes are too high to waste our time beating up straw men.

By Colin Anderson

A shortened version of this piece was printed in the Manitoba Cooperator. Page 5 of:

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