Experts from the fields of agriculture, animal welfare and biotechnology gathered for two panel discussions Thursday as part of the Food Dialogues, hosted by Missouri Farmers Care and the U.S Farmers and Ranchers Alliance in the Reynolds Journalism Institute.
The dialogues are part of a new national initiative to create conversation about the current state of food production.
The diverse background of panelists helped to bridge the gap between consumers and producers, MFC executive director Dan Kleinsorge said.
Farmers have long been missing from the discussion on food, Kleinsorge said.
“There is a whole movement behind food but the farmer wasn’t in the discussion along with other experts,” Kleinsorge said. “The purpose of these talks is to bring the consumer and the farmer together, to bring the farmer back into the conversation.”
Missouri is the second leading producer of beef and 15th largest producer of milk, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Of the 107,825 farms cited by the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center’s brief on farm and agribusiness, a large portion are dedicated to meat production, a topic that dominated discussion in the first panel on animal welfare.
In a moderated dialogue with Tom Bradley, host of Wake Up Columbia’s radio talk show, panelists were quick to emphasize their dedication to providing optimal care for animals.
Chris Chinn, a fifth-generation hog farmer, defended the practices of traditional ranchers and said consumers often do not realize that farmers put animal’s needs and priorities before their own.
“Animal welfare is making sure that every need of our animals is met,” Chinn said during the panel.
Unlike other industries, all farmers are unfairly criticized for the bad practices of certain farm operators, which creates a slanted perception of how animals are treated, MFA Incorporated vice president Alan Wessler said.
“If you have a bad doctor in a hospital you don’t close down the hospital, you get rid of the doctor,” he said. “Good operators have compassion.”
Six other panelists, including ranchers, professors, restaurant owners, farmers and veterinarians voiced similar commitments to animal welfare.
The problem is not how most farmers treat their animals but how the public perceives that treatment, due in part to misrepresentation in product advertising, Wessler said.
For example, Chipotle, a chain food restaurants that advocates locally farmed ingredients, also advertises the use of “food with integrity,” or meat and dairy products produced in a sustainable fashion with care given to the environment, animals and farmers, according to the Chipotle’s website. The restaurant advertises that whenever possible, they use only chicken, pork and dairy products made from animals never given hormones, and they use organic produce.
However, no use of added hormones has been approved for use in poultry, dairy cow, pork or veal production, according to the Food and Drug Administration, so the advertising like that of Chipotle can be misleading, sixth-generation dairy farmer Chris Heins said.
Heins said this misrepresentation in advertising paints an unclear picture of how ranchers operate and creates unnecessary hype around organic farming.
“It’s what I would call fear-based marketing,” Heins said in the discussion. “You have good and bad organic farmers just like you have good and bad conventional farmers.”
Despite frustrations over certain advertising practices, Mark Mahnken, a longtime cattle farmer and owner of Missouri Legacy Beef, remained optimistic about the future of Missouri agriculture and farming, Mahnken said.
“Farmers are pretty flexible people, and they know how to survive,” Mahnken said. “They’re hard workers, and they love what they do. They have a passion for it.”